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How Much Caffeine is too Much?

Caffeine intake by children is on the rise, and parents often are unaware of how the drug is affecting their kids. Forewarned is forearmed.

By Dr. Katherine Leaming-Van Zandt, pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital

Caffeinated beverages and foods, such as gourmet coffee drinks, sodas, iced teas, energy drinks, ice- cream, and candy are readily available to children and teens. However, when purchasing these seemingly innocent treats for their children, parents may be forgetting caffeine is actually a drug that stimulates the brain and nervous system. While lower levels may increase a person’s energy, mood, and performance, too much caffeine can cause many symptoms:

  • Jitteriness and tremors
  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Stomach aches
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased urination
  • Dehydration

Because of its rapid absorption in the body, symptoms of caffeine toxicity usually begin within two to four hours of ingestion. Although it is relatively uncommon in children and adolescents, excessive caffeine consumption may cause intoxication, resulting in vomiting, cardiac arrhythmias, seizures, and even death.

According to a 2014 study published in Pediatrics, children consume most of their caffeine from sodas. However, coffee and energy drinks are increasingly representing a greater proportion of caffeine intake in children! Although parents may know of its presence in certain foods and drinks, they may not be aware of the actual amounts of caffeine their children are consuming throughout the day. The following table lists the caffeine amounts in some of the most popular foods and drinks on the market.

Most pediatricians recommend children younger than 12 years old should avoid caffeine altogether, and adolescents and young adults should not consume more than 200 mg of caffeine per day. Other reasons for children to avoid caffeine include:

  • Many caffeinated beverages and foods also contain a large amount of sugar and empty calories, children may be at higher risk for tooth decay, nutrient deficiencies and obesity.
  • Caffeine is a diuretic that can lead to increased urination (or peeing). Without continuous hydration with water or other non-caffeinated, non-carbonated beverages, children who are engaged in prolonged, vigorous activities or live in hot, humid environments, are at particular risk for dehydration.
  • Although small amounts may not cause serious harm, tolerance can quickly develop, thereby necessitating higher doses to achieve some of the desired effects of caffeine.
  • Abrupt removal of caffeine from the diet can cause withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, tiredness, decreased energy, decreased alertness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating and irritability. Withdrawal symptoms usually occur about 12 to 24 hours after discontinuing caffeine, peak at one to two days, and may persistent for up to nine days!

So, as sports training sessions resume, and hot and humid weather looms ahead, avoid the iced or frozen cappuccinos, energy drinks, and sodas … and purchase healthier alternatives, such as water, sparkling water, milk or juice, for your children.

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