The “Cinnamon Challenge”, which involves trying to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon without water within sixty seconds, has led to many calls to poison centers, emergency departments visits and hospitalizations of teenagers who require ventilator support for collapsed lungs.

Swallowing a teaspoon of Cinnamon within sixty seconds is a nearly impossible challenge. Even on the online dare, there is a warning: “It’s going to burn, you are going to cough, and regret you tried.”

The Cinnamon Challenge is a dare that has spread throughout the Internet. While most children know about it, very few parents and teachers do, researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine wrote in the journal Pediatrics.

Steven E. Lipshultz, M.D., the George Batchelor Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the Batchelor Children’s Research Institute, said:

“Given the allure of social media, peer pressure and a trendy new fad, pediatricians and parents have a ‘challenge’ of their own in counseling tweens and teens regarding the sensibilities of the choices they make and the potential health risks of this dare. Ingesting and Aspirating Dry Cinnamon by Children and Adolescents: The ‘Cinnamon Challenge.”

The authors said that parents need to be told about the Cinnamon Challenge, and they need to advise their children about the dangers. Parental advice really matters to kids, they added. “Schools and pediatricians should be encouraged to discuss with children the ‘Cinnamon Challenge’ and its possible harmful effects.”

Co-author Judy Schaechter, M.D., M.B.A., Interim Chair of Pediatrics, was surprised to find out during a recent dinner with a dozen pediatricians that none of them had ever heard of the Cinnamon Challenge.

Even though most teenagers who choose to do the challenge endure only temporary effects, the researchers wrote that poison centers are receiving an increasing number of calls related to the Cinnamon Challenge, and more kids are ending up in emergency departments and being hospitalized.

Cinnamon is a caustic powder consisting of cellulose fibers which do not dissolve and are not biodegradable in the lungs. Animal studies have shown that cinnamon can cause inflammation of the airways and lungs (if it is inhaled), and it can also cause lesions and scarring in the lungs and airways. People with asthma, pulmonary cystic fibrosis, chronic lung disease or a hypersensitivity to spice need to be especially careful.

The authors wrote:

“Although we cannot make a strong statement on documented pulmonary sequelae in humans, it is prudent to warn that the ‘Cinnamon Challenge’ has a high likelihood to be damaging to the lungs. These discussions can also help children learn to weigh the risks and rewards of yielding to peer pressure when considering senseless and risky behaviors.”

Since August 2012, millions of people have watched at least 50,000 YouTube videos of adolescents and young adults coughing, gagging and chocking as they accept the Cinnamon Challenge. Most of the participants are aged from 13 to 24 years. This age has the “greatest need for conformity” (susceptible to peer pressure).

The authors are in no doubt that the growing Internet presence of the Cinnamon Challenge has led to a significant rise in calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. From January through June 2012, 178 calls related to this fad were made, compared to just 51 during the whole of 2011. Of those calls, 69% (122) were because of intentional misuse or abuse. 17% of callers required medical attention.

Serious or life-threatening consequences from the Cinnamon Challenge are extremely rare, the authors emphasized. However, “they are unnecessary and avoidable.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist