Can You Actually Overdose on Caffeine?

By Allison McCabe 12/04/13

According to a recent rise in emergency room visits due to caffeine poisoning, yes, you actually can.

Not so good to the last drop
Photo via Shutterstock

With the continuing popularity of energy drinks, pills, and candy, more and more caffeine users are reporting adverse consequences as a result of consuming energy produces. Recent episodes of caffeine poisoning have confirmed the fears of those who consume too much: it is possible that you can overdose on caffeine. And sometimes, you can die.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), emergency room visits attributed to energy drinks more than doubled from 10,068 in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011. Reports of people suffering from the adverse effects of too much caffeine have poured in from across the country and the world. Christian Brenner started feeling tremors and having hallucinations as he was driving down an Ohio freeway shortly after taking five Magnum 357 caffeine pills. Luckily, he was able to pull over and walk off the effects. But John Jackson of Birmingham, England, was not so lucky: he died of a caffeine overdose after consuming too many Hero Instant Energy Mints. While it was unclear how many he ingested, the manufacturers of the mint stated that based on the caffeine levels in his blood, Jackson must have eaten "over 300 of our mints, which is staggering," a company spokesperson said.

Doctors put the safe dose of caffeine at about 200 to 300 milligrams per day, which is equivalent to two-to-four cups of coffee. In contrast, the pills Brenner took had 200 mg of caffeine each, which means he ingested triple the amount considered safe. Meanwhile, energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster contain anywhere between 80 and 240 milligrams. One of the problems with the new formulations, according to Barbara Crouch, executive director of the Utah Poison Control Center, is that people - and very often kids - drink two or three of the energy drinks at once to get a quick buzz. "When you pound down more than one energy drink verses sipping a cup of coffee, you're not metabolizing it the same way," said Crouch. And given the amount of food in the stomach, adverse consequences do not seem all that far-fetched. "There is absolutely such a thing as caffeine poisoning," she said. "And the dose essentially makes the poison."

As a result of the increasing prevalence of news reports on health-related problems due to energy products, the Food and Drug Administration plans to closely examine caffeinated foods, drinks, and supplements. "We are contracting with the Institute of Medicine to conduct a public meeting to obtain additional scientific information and expert input on caffeine and are actively reaching out to the food industry and health care practitioners to discuss concerns about caffeine in conventional foods and dietary supplements," said FDA spokesperson Teresa Eisenman.

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Allison McCabe is the editor in chief of The Fix. She has written for LA Weekly, Village Voice, Junk: a literary fix, Ramshackle Review, Main Street Journal and others. Follow Allison on Twitter.