As students are heading into mid-terms, doctors and parents alike are concerned about children’s and adolescents’ consumption of caffeinated energy drinks. Dr. Ran Goldman, emergency room physician, paediatrician, and researcher with CFRI’s Innovations in Acute Care & Technology group, addresses these concerns in his most recent column in Canadian Family Physician, the peer-reviewed publication of the College of Family Physicians in Canada.

Through his column, Child Health Update, Dr. Goldman answers questions about child health issues from physicians across Canada, and includes rationale drawn from the latest published research.

What makes children and adolescents want to consume caffeinated energy drinks?

Caffeinated energy drinks are designed to help adults feel more energetic and alert, but they are not designed for young people. Some students turn to caffeinated energy drinks during periods of insufficient sleep, increased studying, and to manage stress. Teenagers who are not habitual caffeine users are at higher risk for caffeine intoxication as they simply have not built up an adult level of tolerance to high levels of caffeine. The potential side effects of caffeinated energy drinks are amplified when the drinks are mixed with alcohol or taken in conjunction with some medications.

What are the dangers of consuming these drinks, and who is most at risk of dangerous side effects?

It’s important to think of these products the same way you’d think about medication – how is it going to interact with other substances? Almost 10 per cent of adolescents in Canada are on prescription stimulants for ADHD and other conditions; these kids are at an increased risk of things like rapid heartbeat, agitation, kidney failure and even seizures.

Why did the Canadian government recently reclassify energy drinks?

The epidemic-like growth in consumption of and access to caffeinated drinks brought the authorities in Canada to change this year the classification of energy drinks from natural health products to food. This allows authorities to limit a single-serving bottle to 180 mg of caffeine, about half the recommended maximum dose of daily caffeine for adults in Canada.

There was also significant criticism at the marketing of energy drinks to children, so hopefully this will change soon as well.

How can parents help children make healthier beverage choices?  

Just as we don’t let children go to the pharmacy and buy medication, we should not allow children to buy caffeinated drinks. Parents should encourage their children to drink plenty of water, and in the case of older teenagers who do occasionally consume these drinks, they should be encouraged to drink them in combination with water. A good breakfast in the morning should make children and adolescents feel energized and less reliant on caffeine; fatigue and low energy are some of the reasons why kids turn to caffeinated energy drinks in the first place. Finally, it’s important to educate children on the long-term risks of caffeinated energy drinks – especially when mixed with alcohol or medication – and the physiological effects of caffeine dependency.

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When it comes to translating research into clinical care, Dr. Ran Goldman is in a unique position; he can see the applications of his research in his practice in the emergency room at BC Children’s Hospital. Dr. Goldman’s Pediatric Research in Emergency Therapeutics (PRETx) Program brings research innovations into the clinical setting with a focus on improving safety and preventing adverse reactions by understanding the interactions and side effects of medications, vitamins and complementary medicine.