Death by Caffeine Overdose Isn't as Uncommon as You'd Think

The recent death of a South Carolina teen reopens questions about how much caffeine is too much when it comes to energy drinks, soda, and coffee.
May 17, 2017, 9:11pm
Photo via Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar

The tragic sudden death of a South Carolina teen this week has raised new concerns about the dangers of excessive caffeine consumption.

Davis Allen Cripe, a healthy 16-year-old high school student from Richland County, collapsed in a classroom after consuming three heavily caffeinated beverages in a short time period. According to County Coroner Gary Watts, within the span of two hours, Cripe drank a McDonald's café latte, a large diet Mountain Dew, and an energy drink before suffering a fatal "caffeine-induced cardiac event," as reported by WYFF News 4.

In a news conference held Monday, Watts noted that "we lost Davis from a totally legal substance," adding that there was "so much caffeine at the time of his death, that it caused his arrhythmia." The teen's father also made a statement, warning against the dangers of excessive caffeine intake and saying that his son had never touched alcohol and drugs before his death as a result of a substance that could easily be sought out on store shelves and in vending machines.

READ MORE: Study Accidentally Doses Students with Caffeine Equivalent of 300 Cups of Coffee

Though recent medical research has primarily sided with coffee in recent years—even suggesting that it could be the cure for a weed habit or jet lag—there have been numerous recent documented deaths due to overconsumption of caffeine, particularly of those in their teens and twenties.

The website Caffeine Informer, whose mission is to make "accurate caffeine information… freely available to all," traces the history of caffeine-related deaths, acknowledging that while fatalities due to caffeine consumption are "rare," there are some noted exceptions.

Photo via Flickr user Niyantha Shekar

One of the biggest culprits of caffeine-related fatalities has been caffeine pills, responsible for the deaths of 19-year-old James Stone of Connecticut, who consumed two dozen No-Doz tablets at once; 26-year-old UK resident Gemma Ann, who deliberately consumed 50 to 100 caffeine-laced pills; and 24-year-old Cara Reynolds, who overdosed on high-caffeine raspberry ketone pills, which left her with a blood caffeine level equivalent to someone who had consumed 225 cans of Red Bull at the time of her death.

An 18-year-old high school senior and competitive wrestler named Logan J. Stiner also passed away in 2014 after consuming a lethal dose of caffeine powder in a homemade workout drink. A single teaspoon of the powder, which is not regulated and popular with bodybuilders and other competitive athletes, contains the caffeine of dozens of cans of soft drinks.

Energy drinks have been the most high-profile driving force behind caffeine-related deaths in recent years, including that of a 28-year-old Australian man who suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after consuming seven to eight cans of an energy drink within a seven-hour period, and a Nigerian man who passed away after drinking 8 cans of Bullet Energy Drink after making a $100 bet with a friend.

Numerous deaths have also been linked specifically to the Monster brand energy drink, which was responsible for the 2011 death of a 14-year-old girl who consumed two 24-ounce cans of the beverage, as well as a 19-year-old in 2013 who drank two to three Monsters a day for three years, prompting his mother to file a lawsuit against the popular brand.

READ MORE: This Is How We All Got Addicted to Caffeine

While the FDA has been investigating the harmful effects of energy drinks and caffeine supplements for the better part of a decade—including those of 5-Hour Energy, which has been linked to 13 deaths over four years (but does contain a warning label about the dangers of excessive caffeine consumption)—little has been done to limit access to energy drinks, particularly by young people, and America's obsession with caffeine seems to be greater than ever.

According to historian Melanie King's book Tea, Coffee & Chocolate: How we fell in love with caffeine, our modern obsession with caffeinated beverages can be traced back to 17th century Europe, which first obtained the addictive substance from China and the Middle East. Now, even toddlers are hooked on the world's most popular stimulant, with one Boston Medical Center study finding that 15 percent of Boston toddlers drink up to four ounces of coffee a day.

Caffeine Informer co-founder and biology and health educator Ted Kallymer tells MUNCHIES that the best way to counteract potentially dangerous relationships with caffeine is early education. "Teens need to understand how much caffeine is in various products and how much is appropriate for them, which is no more than 100mg a day," he says. "They also need to be aware of the consequences of consuming too much caffeine and stories like the recent death." Kallymer, who says he personally experienced "overdose symptoms" from excessive caffeine consumption in his 20s, says that while many major soft drink makers have made increased efforts in providing caffeine content information on the label, "the industry that's lagging behind is the coffee/tea industry," who often don't provide clear personalized caffeine labeling or "simply use the generic USDA data for caffeine content."

Despite the dangers of energy drink consumption among young people, Kallymer says he wouldn't necessarily recommend restricting sales to the younger set, due to "the danger of making energy drinks even more appealing by restricting them."

Rather, Kallymer supports increased efforts towards "better education about caffeine and energy drinks," in order to potentially prevent tragic events like the death of Davis Allen Cripe and guarantee that no sought-after free period buzz will take another young life too soon.