Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world. Many people rely on it in one way or another. Whether it’s just a breakfast drink, or you drink it all day long, caffeine is a stimulant that has the power to potentially hurt you.
In fact, in certain circumstances, it can be fatal.
There’s no need to stop your daily coffee habit. A study by the National Institute of Health indicates, “death due to caffeine intoxication is rare and case reports of fatalities from caffeine toxicity are relatively infrequent.”1
Be that as it may, it’s still important to know what the risks factors are and what to look for in case of overindulgence.
The Fatal Effects Of Caffeine
Most fatal caffeine scenarios are not related to drinking coffee, but to taking caffeine supplements. The cause of death is also typically associated with something other than caffeine, as well. For example, athletics, psychiatric conditions, caffeine dependency, and accidents often play a role.
Caffeine Related Accidental Sports Overdose
In this case, an amateur bodybuilder was believed to take caffeine supplements to enhance his/her performance. Caffeine is often taken in powder or capsule form to increase bodybuilders’ stamina and strength. The levels ingested were enough to give the patient fatal cardiac arrhythmia, however. The patient subsequently passed away from the overdose.
Caffeine Related Psychiatric Deaths
The connection between mental health disorders and coffee has long been debated among psychiatric scholars and researchers. While studies are fairly new (and not yet concrete), the number of deaths associated with mental illness is the leader in caffeine fatalities. This is especially true for prolonged use of caffeine.
Additionally, caffeine is thought to trigger psychiatric symptoms and actions such as suicide.
Caffeine Related Accidental Poisoning in Children
Children and young adults have a much lower tolerance for caffeine than adults. When you have caffeine powder that can equal 500 cups of coffee in a single tablespoon, unfortunate accidents happen. There have been many accidental child fatalities from caffeine overdose. This also poses a threat for babies who are still nursing as any caffeine ingested by the mother can be passed to the child.
Caffeine Related Accidental Overdose in a Healthy Adult
Even in healthy adults, the potential for a fatal overdose is real. In this case, a healthy 44-year-old man was emitted to the hospital after ingesting guarana which is a strong form of caffeine often found in energy drinks. Upon hospitalization, the man suffered from atrial fibrillation (rapid heartbeat), increased blood pressure, heart rate, and other various signs of distress resulting in a diagnosis of acute caffeine poisoning.
Caffeine Related Accidental Exercise Death
Caffeine and caffeine supplements can cause serious issues and death even in you, are not a professional (or training to be) athlete. One otherwise healthy 36-year-old man was admitted to the emergency room after a friend gave him a supplement before running a half marathon. After the collapse, the man had signs of high heartbeat and profuse sweating. He was eventually intubated and he later passed away from complications.
Caffeine Related Accidental Overdose
In 2021, a 29-year-old personal trainer died after consuming caffeine powder. Unfortunately, it was a simple mistake in measuring that led to his passing. According to his family, he received the powder through an online source. When measuring the made the mistake of measuring out 60 to 300 milligrams of powder, but due to an error with his scale, he consumed the powder in grams. The powder he ingested equaled about 200 cups of coffee.
Caffeine-Induced Accidental Death
While most caffeinated deaths are due to forms of caffeine other than beverages, it still can happen as was the case of a teenager in 2017. This young man consumed a McDonald’s latte, a bottle of Mountain Dew, and an energy drink all within two hours. In this case, it was not the amount of caffeine that was ingested, but the time in which it was consumed. The otherwise healthy teenager died of a “caffeine-induced cardiac event causing a probable arrhythmia,” according to the coroner’s report.
What Is Caffeine?
According to Medline Plus, “Caffeine is a bitter substance that occurs naturally in more than 60 plants”. The most popular of these plants include:
- Coffea Plant (Coffee)
- Camellia sinensis (Tea)
- Kola Nuts (Used in soda)
- Cacao Pods (Used to make chocolate)
- Guarana (Energy and soda)
There is also synthetic caffeine that is also almost indistinguishable from its natural cousin. The only real difference between the two is that one is derived from plants while the other is made in a lab. Faux caffeine was originally invented by the Germans during WWII when coffee and other caffeine products were hard to come by.
How Caffeine Affects the Body
Taken in moderation, coffee can do a lot of positive things for our bodies in mind. Many people prefer their caffeine in the form of coffee as it has the least amount of health drawbacks. Tea comes in at a close second, though there are many other ways you can consume the substance.
Take a look at this list of positive benefits studies have shown caffeine to have on the human body:
- Make you feel more awake
- Decrease fatigue
- Increase energy levels
- Rids of the body of excess salt and water (diuretic)
- Increases cognitive function
- Improves mood
- Increases athletic ability
- Speeds up response time
- Improves memory
Keep in mind, some of these effects have only been researched in clinical studies, but the information has repeated itself several times over.
Caffeine can have downsides that are not as severe as accidental caffeine poisoning, but troublesome, nonetheless.
- Fast heartbeat
People who consume caffeine often find that reducing their daily consumption will reduce these dire effects.
Different Forms of Caffeine
There are also many forms of caffeine you can have, and some are more dangerous than others. The most common form of caffeine is coffee and tea. Outside of that, you have:
- Energy drinks
- Some food recipes
- Caffeine powers and supplements
Where people can in trouble with caffeine is when it’s consumed in concentrated forms like powders and supplements. In the same study by the National Institute of Health, evidence of 92 cases of caffeine poisoning and deaths were found, but only a very small number of those were from drinking too much coffee in one sitting.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), people who drink 400 milligrams (four to five cups) should not have any adverse effects. Caffeine in concentrations between 80-100 mg per liter can be fatal.
Signs of Overdose
It is important to be careful when taking caffeine powders and supplements. In May of 2018, the FDA announced that liquid and high concentration caffeine powered were a “threat to public health”. They also declared it was unlawful to sell these products online or in-store in bulk to customers.
Many people still use these caffeinated capsules for sports enhancements and other purposes. This is why it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of an overdose.
- Fast heartbeat
- Irregular heartbeat
- Anxiety attack
Other signs have been reported by patients with preexisting symptoms, too. If anything feels not right, you should seek medical attention.
What You Should Do?
Caffeine poisoning can be scary. If it’s severe enough, it can cause disorientation, seizures, heart arrhythmias, and death. If you have consumed too much caffeine, you have a few options depending on how severe it is.
If you’re feeling restless and dehydrated, stop drinking or taking what caffeine you were consuming. Drink plenty of water and do some light exercise to get rid of any excess energy. These feelings should pass in three to five hours.
If the symptoms persist, or you show signs of a fast heartbeat, disorientation, or panic attacks, you want to seek medical attention as soon as possible. They will be able to give you fluids and activated charcoal (which stops caffeine from entering the bloodstream). Either way, you will be in the right hands.
If you have a question but are unsure if you took too much, you can also call Poison Control. They will be able to assist you and help you determine what your next steps should be.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Too Many Cups of Coffee Kill You?
You would need to drink about 42 cups of coffee in one sitting for the caffeine to be at lethal levels. This is why the most common cause of caffeine poisoning is not from coffee.
How Many Energy Drinks Can Kill You?
When it comes to energy drinks, you would need to consume roughly 10 energy drinks in one sitting for the levels of caffeine to be high enough to be fatal. Keep in mind, energy drinks often have other ingredients that can be detrimental to your health, as well.
What Is the Most Common Cause of Caffeine Death?
Unfortunately, the most common cause of caffeine death is not accidental but intentional. This is usually due to high concentrations of caffeine supplements or powders. In this case, most individuals had a preexisting psychiatric condition.
The second most common cause of death is accidental caffeine poisoning typically in the case of athletes, amateur athletes, or those engaging in physical activities.
How Can Your Prevent Caffeine Poisoning?
One of the best ways to protect yourself is by staying away from concentrated doses of caffeine in general. If you have not had any adverse reactions, make sure you pay attention to the concentration and measurement. Also, speak with your doctor to ensure you’re in good enough physical shape.
You also want to keep caffeine supplements and other high-dose items away from people more susceptible to poisoning to keep them from accidentally ingesting it. For example, kids and teenagers under 18 years old, anyone with cardiac issues, and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Caffeine poisoning may not common, but it’s still not something you want to mess around with. There are easy ways you can prevent an accidental overdose from occurring by monitoring yourself and keeping any supplements and powders out of the reach of children.
If you do find yourself not sure whether you have taken too much, either get advice from a medical professional or call Poison Control for advice. The sooner you are able to get help, the better your chances of getting help in time.
Featured Image Credit: itakdalee, Shutterstock
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