Caffeine is a mild stimulant that is often contained in tea, coffee, carbonated beverages and energy foods and drinks. It is consumed by many people in varying quantities and is thought of as the most commonly used psychoactive drug worldwide. Based on survey data published in 2014, about 85% of the U.S. population drank at least one caffeinated beverage every day. There is some debate as to whether true addiction to caffeine is possible. It is certainly true that people can become physically dependent on caffeine, since mild withdrawal may occur when use is stopped. Caffeine may also cause certain symptoms (psychological and behavioral) similar to other addictive processes.

Many people use caffeine due to its stimulant properties since it can help with mental alertness and reaction time. Some research has shown that people who use caffeine regularly have less depression. Caffeine is also appealing because it can help with exercise performance and increase metabolic rate.

How Addictive Is Caffeine?

Although caffeine is a mild stimulant, it does not have the same addiction potential as more potent stimulant substances. In fact, many addiction experts disagree as to whether true caffeine addiction is possible. One definition of substance addiction describes continued substance use despite negative consequences. People who use caffeine heavily often do not notice negative consequences in their lives, and it is unlikely that caffeine use causes serious harm in any way.

Many well-known addictive substances cause increases in the brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is involved in the reward circuit within the brain and is thought to be a major contributor in various substance use disorders. Although caffeine use may cause a small rise in dopamine levels, it probably does not cause a large enough increase to upset the dopamine balance substantially. Also, since the adverse effects of high caffeine use (like agitation and fidgeting) are uncomfortable for many people, most people do not use extreme amounts of caffeine.

There is currently not enough research to determine whether caffeine use disorder should be an official psychological diagnosis, mostly because the relative harm related to caffeine use is difficult to define.

Caffeine is known to be associated with physical and psychological dependence, however. Many people feel like they have trouble functioning without their morning cup of coffee. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms do exist, and they include many symptoms including headache, fatigue and decreased alertness.

How Long Does it Take to Get Addicted to Caffeine?

The potential for a person to become dependent on caffeine may be influenced by genetics. The exact amount of time it takes to become dependent on caffeine is unknown, but it likely varies from person to person and depends on the frequency and quantity of caffeine intake.

Signs and Symptoms of Caffeine Addiction

Caffeine use is associated with several signs and symptoms. These symptoms may be more noticeable or uncomfortable as larger amounts are consumed and the duration of use is longer.

  • More common signs and symptoms of caffeine use include:

    • Anxiety
    • Restlessness
    • Fidgeting
    • Agitation
    • Irritability
    • Nausea
    • Headaches
    • Increased heart rate
    • Increased blood pressure

Large doses or prolonged use of caffeine may be associated with cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, but moderate caffeine consumption has not been shown to cause serious or irreversible health problems.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can begin within a day after use is stopped, and sometimes may last for up to nine days. Withdrawal can occur even when caffeine is not completely stopped, but reduced from one day to the next. Withdrawal symptoms usually subside after several days and are usually mild in nature.

  • Caffeine withdrawal symptoms include:

    • Headache
    • Concentration problems
    • Sleepiness
    • Irritability
    • Mental fog

Treatment for a Caffeine Addiction

Although caffeine addiction is currently not a recognized mental health condition, some people may feel like they cannot stop using caffeine even if they want to. Fortunately, caffeine withdrawal is not life-threatening and doesn’t usually require medical assistance. Seeking professional help to determine underlying reasons for problematic caffeine use may be beneficial for some people. Some people may have an undiagnosed medical condition that is contributing to the desire to consume a stimulant like caffeine, so evaluation may be warranted.