It’s unlikely your teen could die from a caffeine overdose, says local doctor

Dr. David Kessler, an electrophysiologist who practices at Heart Hospital of Austin, confers with student athlete Walker Demedeiros during a free heart screening on Feb. 4.

This week we’ve read the reports of the 16-year-old high school student in South Carolina whose death on April 26 was ruled a caffeine overdose by the local coroner. Davis Allen Cripe had ingested a latte from McDonald’s, a Mountain Dew and an energy drink two hours before he collapsed in his high school. 

He had had a heart arrhythmia that was attributed to the amount of caffeine he drank, believed to be about 600-plus milligrams of caffeine. So, how much caffeine is too much caffeine and is this really what killed Davis Allen Cripe?

Dr. David Kessler is having trouble believing that caffeine is the root cause of Cripe’s death. He’s a cardiologist and electrophysiologist at St. David’s Heart Hospital of Austin who specializes in arrhythmia. He’s never seen clients come to him because of caffeine overuse. In fact, caffeine has been shown to be a benefit to patients who regularly consume four to five cups of coffee a day or 400 to 500 milligrams a day, he says. It has been shown to be helpful with high cholesterol and protective for people who have had strokes or myocardial infarctions.

Kessler calls this idea that caffeine causes arrhythmia an old wives tale. “There’s very little data that people that drink coffee have a high propensity of arrhythmia,” Kessler says.

There is a question about what happens when an adolescent that does not have a built-up caffeine tolerance ingests that much caffeine. We don’t really know because you cannot do studies on children and it would be irresponsible to give someone who doesn’t have a caffeine tolerance that much caffeine and sit back and see what happens, Kessler says, but studies have been done on rats. “We don’t see rats dying from that,” he says.

“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Kessler says of Cripe’s death, but he thinks blaming the caffeine is wrong. ” If this were such a problem, why aren’t we seeing more deaths? With the amount of Monster drinks being sold around the country, you’d be seeing kids dropping left and right.”

He believes that Cripe’s family, especially any siblings, should be tested for a genetic abnormality like Long QT Syndrome, rather than blaming the caffeine.

That doesn’t mean that kids should be consuming energy drinks, sodas and coffee. The problem isn’t the caffeine. The problem is the sugar that surrounds it. Sodas and energy drinks are loaded with sugar, and teens are known to doctor up coffee with sugar. We found 27 grams in a 12-ounce Monster energy drink, 41 grams in a 12-ounce Pepsi, 46 grams in a 12-ounce Mountain Due and 46 grams in a 13.7-ounce Starbucks Vanilla Frappuccino.

“We have an obesity epidemic, we have a diabetes problem,” Kessler says. “They don’t need the sugar. They probably don’t need that much caffeine.”

“Our kids mimic what we do,” he says. “If there’s no Red Bull in the house, they don’t drink the Red Bull. If they see us with a cup of coffee in the morning, they’re going to drink it in high school.”