Could one too many energy drinks send your kid to the hospital?

Targeted at children and teens, with fruity flavors and promises of increased focused and supercharged athletic performance, these hyper-caffeinated drinks (dubbed “drugs in a can” by Oklahoma State University researchers) are involved in an increasing number of reports of health emergencies.

In November 2014, researchers from Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit reported that 40 percent of energy drink-related calls to poison-control centers between 2010 and 2013 involved children under age 6. Some had serious heart symptoms, like abnormal heartbeats, and brain problems such as seizures.

In 2013, the government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that energy drinks were involved in 20,873 emergency room visits in 2011, up from 1,494 in 2005. And in a report in the journal Pediatrics, energy drinks were associated with more than 5,000 caffeine overdoses — 46 percent in kids age 18 and younger.

What parents should know

1. They have sky-high levels of caffeine. Some energy drinks contain 400 milligrams (mg) per can or bottle, far more than the 100 to 150 mg in a typical cup of coffee or 50 mg in a 12-ounce can of soda. Some of the caffeine comes from herbal stimulants like guarana and yerba mate. Big cans make over-doing it easy. The can may say it holds several servings, but who stops at part of a can?

All that caffeine is a problem. Caffeine poisoning can happen in in kids younger than age 12 who consume more than 2.5 mg of caffeine for every 2.2 pounds they weigh, the Detroit researchers report. It can occur in teens who down more than 100 mg of caffeine.

2. They’re a poor choice for athletes. “Some kids are drinking energy drinks — containing large amounts of caffeine — when their goal is simply to rehydrate after exercise. This means they are ingesting large amounts of caffeine and other stimulants, which can be dangerous,” said Marcie Beth Schneider, MD, a member of the AAP Committee on Nutrition and coauthor of the group’s report, in a news release. Parents can help by talking with teens and by making sure water is handy before, during and after sports practices and games.

3. Marketers are targeting kids. Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity warns that one out of three TV ads for sugary drinks viewed by teens and one out of four viewed by preschoolers and children promote energy drinks. Kids also are targeted aggressively on their phones, tablets and laptops. The Rudd Center notes that drink makers run popular campaigns that attract tens of millions of followers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Many feature extreme sports and popular bands. One brand had the top-viewed YouTube video recently (with 46 million views) while another brand posted 4,200 different videos.

“Despite promises by major beverage companies to be part of the solution in addressing childhood obesity, our report shows that companies continue to market their unhealthy products directly to children and teens,” said Jennifer Harris, PhD, Yale Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives and lead author of the report said in a press release. “They have also rapidly expanded marketing in social and mobile media that are popular with young people, but much more difficult for parents to monitor.”

Sari Harrar is an award-winning health, medicine and science journalist whose work appears in Dr. Oz The Good Life magazine, Good Housekeeping, O--Oprah Magazine, Organic Gardening and other publications.