American Medical News
By — Posted Feb. 18, 2013
Pediatrician Kwabena L. Blankson, MD, sees teens complaining of headaches, stomach pain or sleeping problems — and often the cause is as plain as the energy drink they're carrying into the exam room.
“I'm always shocked when I have a kid come into the clinic holding an energy drink,” said Dr. Blankson, a major in the U.S. Air Force and an adolescent specialist at Virginia-based Naval Medical Center. “When I say, 'Hey, how much caffeine is in that?' their faces are completely blank. They have no clue” how the drink is affecting their health.
A Feb. 1 report in Pediatrics in Review, co-written by Dr. Blankson, seeks to raise awareness of the harmful effects energy drinks have on adolescents. The report summarizes existing research on the drinks and provides physicians practical guidance on how to address the drinks with adolescents. Common health problems resulting from energy drinks include rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, obesity and insomnia, the report said. Combined with alcohol, the drinks can lead to extreme intoxication and, in some cases, death.
Despite these harmful effects, energy drinks continue to rise in popularity among teens and adults.
In 2012, total U.S. sales for energy drinks and energy shots was more than $12.5 billion, a rise of 60% since 2008, according to a Jan. 29 report by Packaged Facts, a market trend and analysis firm.
A March 1, 2011, study in Pediatrics found that the beverages are consumed by 30% to 50% of adolescents and young adults. Of 5,448 caffeine overdoses reported in 2007 in the U.S., 46% occurred in people younger than 19. From 2003 to 2008, energy drink consumption among teens rose by 16%, according to the Pediatrics in Review report. Illnesses and hospitalizations from the drinks have been the subject of several studies by public health officials.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported Jan. 10 that hospital visits related to the drinks doubled to almost 21,000 from 2007 to 2011. Patients age 18 to 25 were the most common emergency department patients, according to the report.
The trend of teenagers consuming energy drinks is alarming to health professionals, said Connecticut pediatrician Marcie Schneider, MD, a fellow with the American Academy of Pediatrics. She co-wrote an AAP policy report highlighting the dangers of energy drinks for young people.
“These are over-the-counter products that are generally regarded as safe,” she said. “There's no warnings, there's no labels to say what the risks might be. If you look at the marketing, it's very much [geared] to kids. The fonts are crazy. The music is loud. It's very enticing.”
Doctors should make time to discuss the use of energy drinks with teenagers every chance they get, Dr. Blankson said. Whether the adolescent is visiting because of a cold or a major health problem, a conversation about the beverages is necessary, he added.
“A lot of doctors think we need to wait until a well visit,” he said. “The problem with teenagers is they don't always come in for well visits. You may only have one or two opportunities a year to talk to teenagers.”
Another good time to broach the subject is during a sports physical, said Salem, Ore., pediatrician James Lace, MD.
“It's a wonderful opportunity to bring it up. You have a captive audience,” he said. Patients “can't play basketball or softball or [other sports] without that form being signed.”
Dr. Blankson approaches the topic by asking teens if and when they consume energy drinks, and what they know about the beverages. Making teenagers feel comfortable during the conversation is essential, he said.
“At every visit, I talk to them about their home life, their activities, then transition to drug use, sexual activity and conversations about other things,” he said. “I try to provide a safe, private and confidential environment where they” feel comfortable sharing.
Dr. Schneider keeps the AAP policy report in her waiting room for both parents and patients to read. Often parents also are unaware of the dangers of energy drinks, she said.
“The more literature that's around, the better,” she said. “Parents want to do the best thing for their kids. The best thing is to educate them.”
Dr. Blankson said he hopes his report pushes energy drink use to the forefront of physicians' minds. With more doctors, parents, school officials and others discussing the beverages with teens, the greater chance of preventing illnesses and injury.
“If you don't ask about it, it's not something that teenagers are going to volunteer to you,” he said. “I would encourage physicians to keep an open mind when they see a teenager, and to add energy drinks and excessive caffeine use to that list [of issues] they ask about.”