SAN FRANCISCO — The man stumbled into the emergency room late one night after a house party, saying his heart wouldn’t stop pounding and he could barely breathe after downing liquor mixed with energy drinks.
Emergency physician Steve Sun found the patient was so dehydrated he was going into kidney failure, one of many troubling cases Sun says he has treated in recent years tied to energy-drink consumption.
Sun’s changing caseload appears in line with a new government survey that suggests the number of people seeking emergency treatment after consuming energy drinks has doubled nationwide during the past four years, the same period in which the supercharged-drink industry has surged in popularity in convenience stores, bars and on college campuses.
“Five years ago, perhaps I would see one or two cases every three months or so. Now we’re consistently seeing about two cases per month,” said Sun, assistant medical director of the emergency department at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco.
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From 2007 to 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 cases involved teens or young adults, according to the survey of the nation’s hospitals released last week by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
More than half of the patients considered in the survey 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 says energy drinks are safe and there is no proof linking the products to adverse reactions.
The report doesn’t specify which symptoms brought people to the emergency room, but it calls energy-drink consumption a “rising public-health problem” that can cause insomnia, nervousness, headache, fast heartbeat and seizures severe enough to require emergency care.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 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 then uses those responses to estimate the number of energy drink-related emergency department visits nationwide.
Beverage manufacturers said 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.