A decades-old stunt in which thrill-seeking teens swallow a tablespoon of dry cinnamon with no water, gag and spew out a cloud of orange dust went viral in 2012, resulting in more than 50,000 YouTube video clips of young people attempting the so-called "cinnamon challenge."
Although the immediate physical effects -- coughing, choking and burning of the mouth, nose, and throat -- are temporary in most cases, attempts to swallow a large quantity of the dry spice may result in "long-lasting lesions, scarring and inflammation of the airway" or even lung damage, says a new research paper examining the dare.
Nationwide, at least 30 cases last year stemming from the challenge required medical attention, in 2012, including ventilator support for some teens who suffered collapsed lungs, says the paper, in the April issue of Pediatrics, published online today.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers, which issued an a March 2012 alert about the dare, reported 222 cinnamon-related exposures in 2012, up from 51 in 2011. So far this year, 20 exposures were reported from between Jan. 1 and Mar. 31.
For teens and young adults with underlying lung diseases such as asthma, ingesting large quantities of dry cinnamon has the potential to pose significant and unnecessary health risks, says study author Steven Lipshultz, professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "It could really put them in a bad way," he says.
Although there are no human studies of cinnamon inhalation, in animal studies the lungs almost immediately become inflamed after a single exposure and still show signs of damage weeks, even months later, says Lipshultz. "In humans, that would be the equivalent of an elderly person developing emphysema and needing oxygen."
The report notes that cinnamon is a caustic powder composed of cellulose fibers that don't dissolve or biodegrade in the lungs. It also contains an oil that produces allergic, irritant or toxic reactions in some people.
Consumed in small amounts or mixed with other foods, cinnamon does not cause problems for most people, says Lipshultz.
Although the "cinnamon challenge" is not the rage it was a year ago, new videos posted online suggest its allure "hasn't died off," he says, adding that the University of Miami research team is aware of other potentially dangerous online dares, including the "condom challenge," in which participants snort a condom up their nose and pull it out of their mouth.
Michelle Healy, USA TODAY