Just How Dangerous Are Energy Drinks, Anyway?

After a day of sipping energy drinks on the beach in Rocky Point, Mexico, 16-year-old Lanna Hamann went into cardiac arrest and died on June 14.

While the cause of Hamann’s death is still unknown, the potential dangers of caffeinated energy drinks like Red Bull, Monster and Rock Star have public health advocates worried – and for good reason. Energy drink-related emergency department visits have skyrocketed, nearly doubling between 2007 and 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Dawn Report, which tracks the nation’s drug-related emergency department visits. (There have also been multiple fatality filings against both 5-Hour Energy and Monster Energy, according to The New York Times, although such filings do not necessarily mean that the drinks contributed to the deaths in question.)

Caffeine is popular. About 80 percent of adults in the US consume the stimulant daily and most of us are responsible about it. And what’s not to like? In low doses, caffeine is basically harmless and, according to Kathleen Miller, PhD, a senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, can even be beneficial to healthy adults by increasing concentration, speeding reaction times and reducing fatigue.

But what many of us forget is that our daily fix is actually a psychoactive drug. “Get high enough levels – and I’m not talking really, super high here, say 500 milligrammes of caffeine, that’s the equivalent of five cups of coffee – and you run into what’s called caffeine toxicity,” Miller says. “That includes the headaches, tremors, heart palpitations and nausea. At high enough levels – and this is fairly unusual – caffeine is toxic enough that, for some people, it can cause seizures, mania, hallucinations, even strokes.” While most people understand how drinking a cup of coffee will affect them, energy drinks are a relatively new phenomenon – and a largely misunderstood one at that.

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