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How much caffeine is too much? Can you die from drinking too much caffeine?

“You don’t talk about caffeine in your school talks. Caffeine is a drug and I’ve heard that there have been some teenagers who’ve died after drinking too much. How much caffeine is too much?”

Caffeine is indeed a drug. It’s a stimulant, speeding up the central nervous system, making the user feel more alert and less tired, as well as increasing digestive tract activity (that’s why a morning cup of coffee can act like a mild laxative). It is estimated that most adults consume about 200 milligrams of caffeine on a given day – that’s equivalent to about five cans of Coke, four cups of tea, a large bar of chocolate, or two cups of coffee.

Most researchers now agree that there is little risk of harm when an adult consumes around 400-500 mg of caffeine a day (around 4 cups of coffee a day). Recommended levels are much lower for children and teenagers, however, as they can be more sensitive to undesirable side effects, such as anxiety, diarrhea and dehydration. Experts believe that teens should drink no more than around 100 mg of caffeine a day (about one cup of coffee or 1-2 cups of tea) but body weight can also determine recommended levels during adolescence.

There are some people, however, who should stay well away from caffeine, particularly those with anxiety. There is even a clinical syndrome known as ‘caffeinism’ which can be caused by the overuse or overdoses of caffeine. Symptoms include increases in anxiety, agitation, insomnia and mood changes. If you are predisposed to an anxiety disorder such as panic attacks, much lower doses of caffeine could trigger the problem.

Caffeine-related deaths are rare but they can happen. These usually occur when caffeine is combined with alcohol (in relation to energy drinks) or the person has an underlying health condition. There have been extremely rare cases, however, where caffeine intake alone has been the cause of death. The cause of death is usually a caffeine-induced cardiac event, related to abnormal heart rhythms.

So, how much caffeine is too much for an adolescent? Like most things, it’s all about being sensible and doing things in moderation. During your teens having a daily coffee with friends is unlikely to cause any major problems but slugging down 3-4 cans of an energy drink in a short period of time, as well as couple of flat whites earlier in the day is not a good idea.

First published: June 2021

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