Energy-drink junkies might want to think twice before popping the top on their next must-have beverage.
During the past four years, the number of people seeking emergency treatment after consuming energy drinks has doubled nationwide, according to a new government survey.
The increase in emergency room visits mirrors the rising popularity of the supercharged drink industry, particularly in convenience stores, bars, and on college campuses. Companies market the drinks as a must-have for day-to-day efficiency and effectiveness.
Between 2007 and 2011, the government estimates the number of emergency room visits involving the neon-labeled beverages shot up from about 10,000 to more than 20,000—most of the cases involving teens and young adults, according to a survey of the nation’s hospitals released late last week by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
More than half of the patients surveyed told doctors they had consumed only energy drinks. In 2011, about 42 percent of the cases involved energy drinks in combination with alcohol or drugs, such as the stimulants Adderall or Ritalin.
The beverage industry deems energy drinks safe for human consumption and says there is no proof linking the products to adverse reactions.
Although the report doesn’t specify what symptoms brought people to the emergency room, it calls energy drink consumption a “rising public health problem” with side effects including insomnia, nervousness, headache, fast heartbeat, and seizures bad enough to require emergency care.
Several emergency physicians said they had seen a definite uptick in the number of patients suffering from irregular heartbeats, anxiety, and heart attacks who said they recently downed an energy drink.
"A lot of people don't realize the strength of these things," said Howard Mell, an emergency physician in the suburbs of Cleveland, who serves as a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "I had someone come in recently who had drunk three energy drinks in an hour, which is the equivalent of 15 cups of coffee. Essentially he gave himself a stress test and thankfully he passed. But if he had a weak heart or suffered from coronary disease and didn't know it, this could have precipitated very bad things."
The findings came as concerns over energy drinks intensified following reports last fall of 18 deaths possibly tied to the drinks and so-called energy shots—including a 14-year-old Maryland girl whose family filed a lawsuit after she drank two large cans of Monster Energy drinks and died. Monster says its products were not responsible for her death.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey was based on responses it receives from about 230 hospitals each year, a representative sample of about 5 percent of emergency departments nationwide. The agency used those responses to estimate the number of energy drink-related emergency department visits nationwide.
The more than 20,000 cases estimated for 2011 represent a small portion of the annual 136 million emergency room visits tracked by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The FDA said it was taking the findings into consideration and pressing for more details as it takes on a broad review of the safety of energy drinks and related ingredients this spring.
"We will examine this additional information … as a part of our ongoing investigation into potential safety issues surrounding the use of energy-drink products," FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said in a statement.
Beverage manufacturers fired back at the survey, saying the statistics were misleading and taken out of context.
"This report does not share information about the overall health of those who may have consumed energy drinks, or what symptoms brought them to the ER in the first place," the American Beverage Association said in a statement. "There is no basis by which to understand the overall caffeine intake of any of these individuals—from all sources."