What Is Caffeine?

Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and other food and drinks.

How Does Caffeine Affect People?

Caffeine is defined as a drug because it stimulates the central nervous system. It affects kids and adults similarly and, at lower levels, can make people feel more alert and energetic.

Foods and drinks with caffeine are everywhere, but it's wise to keep caffeine consumption to a minimum, especially in younger kids.

In both kids and adults, too much caffeine can cause:

  • jitters and nervousness
  • upset stomach
  • headaches
  • difficulty concentrating
  • trouble sleeping
  • faster heart rate
  • higher blood pressure

Especially in young kids, it doesn't take a lot of caffeine to produce these effects.

What Other Problems Can Happen?

Here are some other reasons to limit kids' caffeine consumption:

  • Kids often drink caffeine contained in regular soft drinks. Kids who drink one or more sweetened soft drink per day are 60% more likely to be obese.
  • Caffeinated drinks often contain empty calories, and kids who fill up on them don't get the vitamins and minerals they need from healthy sources. Too much soda can mean missing the calcium kids need from milk to build strong bones and teeth.
  • Too many sweetened caffeinated drinks could lead to dental cavities from the high sugar content and the erosion of tooth enamel from acidity.
  • Caffeine is a diuretic that causes the body to eliminate water (through peeing), which may contribute to dehydration. It's wise to avoid excessive caffeine in hot weather, when kids need to replace fluids lost through sweating.
  • Abruptly stopping caffeine may cause withdrawal symptoms (like headaches, muscle aches, and irritability), especially for those who consume a lot of it.
  • Caffeine can make heart problems or nervous disorders worse, and some kids might not know that they're at risk.

What Is Caffeine Sensitivity?

Caffeine sensitivity refers to the amount of caffeine that will produce an effect in someone. On average, the smaller the person, the less caffeine necessary to produce side effects. However, caffeine sensitivity is most affected by daily caffeine intake.

People who regularly drink beverages containing caffeine soon develop a reduced sensitivity to it. This means they need higher doses of caffeine to achieve the same effects as someone who doesn't drink caffeinated drinks often. So, the more caffeine kids take in, the more caffeine they'll need to feel the same effects. In general, kids are more sensitive to caffeine than adults and can feel its effects for up to 6 hours.

What Foods and Drinks Have Caffeine?

Caffeine is naturally produced in the leaves and seeds of many plants. It's also made artificially and added to certain foods. Kids get most of their caffeine from sodas, but it's also found in coffee, tea, chocolate, coffee ice cream or frozen yogurt, as well as pain relievers and other over-the-counter medicines. Even iced tea can contain as much sugar and caffeine as soda.

Here's how some sources of caffeine compare:

ItemSizeAmount of Caffeine
Jolt soft drink 12 oz. 71.2 mg
Mountain Dew 12 oz. 55 mg
Coca-Cola 12 oz. 34 mg
Diet Coke 12 oz. 45 mg
Pepsi 12 oz. 38 mg
brewed coffee (drip method) 5 oz. 115 mg*
iced tea 12 oz. 70 mg*
dark chocolate 1 oz. 20 mg*
milk chocolate 1 oz. 6 mg*
cocoa beverage 5 oz. 4 mg*
chocolate milk beverage 8 oz. 5 mg*
cold relief medicine 1 tablet 30 mg*
*average amount of caffeine

Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Soft Drink Association

How Can We Cut Back On Caffeine?

Can you keep kids caffeine-free? Absolutely! The best way to cut caffeine (and added sugar) is to eliminate soda. Instead, offer water, milk, or flavored seltzer; you also can serve 100% fruit juice in small amounts. You can still allow the occasional soda or tea — just make it decaffeinated. Watch for hidden caffeine by checking the ingredient list on foods and beverages.

The best way to reduce caffeine intake is to cut back slowly. Otherwise, kids (and adults) could get headaches and feel achy, depressed, or just downright lousy.

Someone cutting back on caffeine may feel tired. The best bet is to hit the sack, not the sodas: It's just a body's way of saying that more rest is needed. Don't worry — energy levels will return to normal in a few days.

As with everything, moderation is the key to keeping your kids' caffeine consumption under control.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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