I Want a New Drug

Experimentation has always been popular, especially among youth who have turned to household substances, cleaning products, prescription medications and even horse tranquilizers when looking for the next cheap, powerful high. Adventure seekers and bored young people have sampled everything from bath salts and misappropriated painkillers to gas fumes, canned air and hand sanitizer, turning themselves into human lab rats as they try out untested substances or misuse them, putting their health – and sometimes their lives – at risk.

The latest trend that took the life of a teen is powdered caffeine. An Ohio prom king died just days before his high school graduation after overdosing on the white powder. The death prompted the US Food and Drug Administration to issue a warning on powdered caffeine products marketed directly to consumers. Even small amount of the stimulant can cause a lethal overdose, the FDA cautions, and just one teaspoon of caffeine powder is equal to drinking approximately 25 cups of coffee.

Caffeine falls into a different category than the substances listed above as it’s something a large percentage of the population ingests on a daily basis. Like energy drinks and over-the-counter medications, it’s seen as harmless because it’s legal and readily available. While your parents, teachers or grandparents might disapprove of you sampling illegal drugs or even partaking of alcohol while you’re under age, they wouldn’t bat an eye at the use of caffeine.

That’s what makes this new powdered form of caffeine so dangerous: it seems completely innocuous. Of course it’s not, as that high school senior discovered. He was found at home with the white powder near him and suffering from an irregular heartbeat and seizures.

Caffeine in liquid form can come in the form of coffee, cappuccino or even a double shot of espresso, but the most it will do is make you jittery. Energy drinks and shots have grown in popularity in recent years, and while their safety is debated, especially for children, they usually produce an effect similar to strong coffee or espresso drinks. But now there’s inhalable caffeine and this caffeine powder, usually purchased over the Internet and used by some to lose weight.

Too Much of a Good Thing

According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is safe for most healthy adults. That translates to four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two “energy shot” drinks. Adolescents are urged to limit themselves to no more than 100 mg of caffeine a day, while children should avoid it all together. For those who do overindulge, there can be unpleasant side effects. These include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Stomach upset
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors

Those who ingest dangerously high levels will experience symptoms of caffeine toxicity which can include rapid and erratic heartbeat, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea and disorientation. In recent years, the FDA has looked at issues related to a variety of different of recreational caffeine-based products. This includes their investigation of 13 deaths and 33 hospitalizations associated with 5-hour Energy products, the inhalable caffeine product AuroShot and Four Loko, a caffeinated alcoholic beverage. Pressure from the FDA has led to some of these products being banned in individual states or reformulated.

The ABCs of Caffeine Powder

Categorized as a supplement, caffeine powder is available online from private pharmaceutical labs in bulk quantities and is sold by vitamin and supplement distributors direct to the public. The powder is nearly 100 percent pure caffeine and the recommended dose is so small that many home users don’t have a measuring spoon small enough to dole out the correct dose.

As with other supplements currently sold in the US, the FDA does not approve caffeine powder products before they reach the market. Despite this lack of regulation, the agency has voiced concern about products with high concentrations of caffeine says it has been monitoring the proliferation of heavily caffeinated products increasingly available on the market. This current lack of regulation makes it nearly impossible for consumers to be sure what they’re getting and that makes caffeine powder even more dangerous.

The Effects of Caffeine

Even when taken in the recommended doses, caffeine is still a powerful stimulant that affects the brain and central nervous system. It’s currently not categorized as a drug, but is shares some common characteristics including inspiring cravings in regular users and withdrawals for those who attempt to give it up cold turkey.

While deaths by caffeine powder are still very rare, the tragic loss of an Ohio teen can serve as a timely reminder to us all to reconsider the substances we ingest on a regular basis and just how safe they really are. With supplements still not monitored, it’s easy to take too much of something without even being aware.

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