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Effect of Caffeine on Kids: Caffeine And Teenagers. Is that Bad?

Social drinking. Drinking to stay energized. Drinking because it tastes good. Teens are participating in the coffee craze. But is it worse for teenagers? What are the effects of caffeine on kids? Is coffee bad for teens? Are energy drinks bad for teens?

Your Teen sought advice about the effects of caffeine from Dr. Nneka Holder, Department of Pediatrics at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

Q: What are the effects of caffeine on teenagers’ bodies?

Holder: Caffeine is a stimulant that can cause increased heart rate and palpitations, insomnia, jitters, increased alertness (followed by loss of energy and stamina once the caffeine wears off), relief from headaches (but for some, caffeine can exacerbate headaches), increased urine production (which can cause dehydration), upset stomach, breast tenderness in females, increased intensity of menstrual cramps.

Q: How are teens typically consuming caffeine?

Holder: Teens consume caffeine mostly from beverages, such as soda, energy drinks, coffee and tea.

Q: Does caffeine affect teens differently than adults?

Holder: Caffeine affects each individual differently, not necessarily based on age.

Q: Do the effects of caffeine on kids differ depending on their size?

Holder: The effects of caffeine can vary based on a person’s tolerance rather than a person’s size. Teens who regularly consume a lot of caffeine will soon develop less sensitivity to it. They will need more caffeine to achieve the same effects.

Q: How does caffeine consumption affect calcium intake?

Holder: Caffeine itself will not affect how the body absorbs calcium; however, substituting caffeinated beverages for healthy, calcium-fortified drinks can contribute to low bone density in teens.

Q: Can caffeine affect teens psychologically?

Holder: Caffeine can cause palpitations that may mimic a panic attack or an irregular heartbeat, thereby causing anxiety.

Q: Does caffeine stunt an adolescent’s growth?

Holder: Caffeine itself does not stunt growth. However, if teens drink caffeine in place of milk and other nutrient-dense drinks, they may miss nutrition that helps them grow.

Q: At what age should you allow your teen to drink coffee?

Holder: Ideally, caffeinated beverages should be avoided before age 18. You should limit your teen’s exposure to caffeinated products until your teen is finished growing. Most teens are nearing or completed their final adult height by late adolescence (between the ages of 18 and 25). Healthy beverages like water or drinks fortified with calcium and vitamin D are the best options.

Q: How much caffeine is acceptable?

Holder: Caffeine is never the preferred drink, and each person responds differently from the side effects. I generally tell my patients to consume healthier drinks first—six to eight glasses of water and three servings of calcium—before they drink a serving of soda or juice.

Q: How should parents monitor their teens’ caffeine intake?

Holder: If there are no physical complaints, an older teen, who is done growing, can safely consume a cup of coffee per day (or equivalent). I would have more concerns with a younger teen, who has not yet finished growing.

Q: Are power drinks like Monster, Red Bull and Rock Star safe?

Holder: These products contain large amounts of caffeine, and teens may experience an increase in heart rate or feel jittery when they drink them. The FDA does not classify caffeine as an addictive substance, so they are not regulated. Again, water and calcium-fortified beverages are better alternatives.

Q: Is there caffeine in decaf products?

Holder: Decaffeinated does not mean caffeine-free. There can be some caffeine in decaffeinated drinks. The process of “decaffeination” can leave residual amounts of caffeine present in the final product (1-2% of the original amount). Consuming large amounts of decaf products may be just as harmful as consuming a smaller amount of a caffeinated product.

Q: What drinks or food may contain hidden caffeine?

Holder: Coffee-flavored foods, like ice cream or candy. Chocolate contains about a third of the amount of caffeine when compared to coffee.

Q: Do the effects of caffeine on kids include addiction?

Holder: Caffeine does not qualify as an addictive substance. However, teens can still crave caffeine, and when their body gets used to the effects, they can suffer some side effects from non-use. The severity of side effects will depend on volume and frequency of use.

Q: What are the dangers of drugs like NoDoz?

Holder: NoDoz keeps teens from feeling tired and creates an inability to fall asleep. This causes sleep deprivation without improving performance. Teens need about 8-10 hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause irritability and behavior problems.

Q: Does caffeine affect brain activity?

Holder: Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and mimics the natural chemical epinephrine. It can help with alertness but does not affect performance.

Q: Can caffeine be considered a gateway drug?

Holder: No, caffeine is not considered a gateway drug. There is no link between consuming caffeine and experimenting with other drugs.

Q: Has Starbucks changed the glamour/access around coffee?

Holder: It depends on the interest of the teen. Many cafes are hangouts for teens. Also, drinking coffee can be considered a status symbol. Nevertheless, not all teens are attracted to cafes.

Q: Is there any long-term damage?

Holder: Caffeine taken with medication, such as Ibuprofin, Aspirin, Naprosyn or Aleve, can lead to an increase of stomach ulcers, gastric reflux or acute renal failure.

Q: Does caffeine affect performance in sports?

Holder: Because caffeine causes increased urination, there is a risk of dehydration. During long workouts or in hot weather, it is much safer to consume water or beverages containing electrolytes.

Q: Are there any benefits to caffeine?

Holder: Although caffeine itself has no nutritional value and is not needed for any physiological function, it is sometimes used to treat migraine headaches.

Q: How do you get your teen to reduce their intake?

Holder: If your teen consumes too much caffeine, the best way to reduce their intake is to cut back slowly. Try replacing one (or more, if necessary) daily caffeinated drinks with a decaffeinated drink for a week. The best options include water and calcium-fortified beverages. They can also try decaffeinated sodas, teas or coffee drinks.

Q: Are there withdrawal symptoms from eliminating caffeine?

Holder: Cutting back on caffeine too quickly can cause headaches, fatigue or irritability. Taking a gradual approach to reducing caffeine intake can help avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Q: What are the dangers of combining caffeine and alcohol?

Holder: The combination of caffeine and alcohol can be extremely dangerous. Because caffeine masks the sedative effects of alcohol, there is no signal to the brain to stop drinking, and the person may continue to drink to the point of alcohol poisoning. Drinks, such as Four Loko, that combine high levels of caffeine with alcohol can acutely increase heart rate (tachacardia), leading to abnormal heart rhythm (dysrrythmia) and heart damage.

Dr. Nneka Holder, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, works in the Department of Pediatrics at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.  

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