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'Cinnamon Challenge': Remembering the dangerous fad you maybe didn't know about that's now hopefully over

Photo by Artizone via Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Dennis Wilkinson via Flickr Creative Commons

By all means kiss a little longer, but for the love of breathing please stop trying to swallow spoonfuls of cinnamon, doctors urge in a new study.

In the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics, physicians have published a paper in response to an inane game called the "Cinnamon Challenge." The study's authors condemn the activity, saying that in some cases it could lead to "potentially toxic" exposure or even trigger a life-threatening asthma attack.

The difficult-to-defend fad of swallowing dry cinnamon powder has resulted in hundreds of teenagers choking the phone lines of poison control centers and an increase in emergency room visits.

In 2012, the American Association of Poison Control Centers logged 222 cases of "intentional misuse or abuse of cinnamon by teens ages 13-19" — a steep increase from the 51 cases recorded in 2011.

Please explain this. I don't get it.

Like zorbing or wearing sports bras as clothing, the "Cinnamon Challenge" is a terrible fad that seemingly defies logic. NPR's Scott Hensley explains how the "game" is played:

The game, if you want to call it that, involves trying to quickly swallow a spoonful of ground cinnamon without the benefit of anything to wash it down. It's practically impossible.

There are tons of YouTube videos showing the typically embarrassing results: gagging, coughing and choking. Some people vomit.

Who thinks this is funny? 

The predominantly 13- to 24-year-old audience responsible for the millions and millions of YouTube page views and tens of thousands of videos, according to the Pediatrics study authors.

Typically, a video reveals a group of adolescents watching as someone taking the challenge begins coughing and choking when the spice triggers a severe gag reflex in response to a caustic sensation in the mouth and throat. As of August 10, 2012, there were 51, 100 YouTube clips depicting the Cinnamon Challenge.

An unscientific search of "Cinnamon Challenge" on YouTube Monday turned up 695,000 results.

Worst case scenarios

Coughing and burning in the mouth, nose and throat are pretty much a sure thing. Other more serious possibilities include:

The AP reports that although the pediatricians who wrote the paper could not make a strong statement about documented lung damage, they wrote "it is prudent to warn that the Cinnamon Challenge has a high likelihood to be damaging to the lungs." 

In many cases, effects are temporary — however, some adolescents have suffered collapsed lungs and required hospitalizations and ventilator support.

Tell me more about putting cinnamon in my lungs

"Cinnamon is made from tree bark and contains cellulose fibers that don't easily break down. Animal research suggests that when cinnamon gets into the lungs, it can cause scarring," said report co-author Dr. Steven E. Lipshultz, a pediatrics professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Scary tale (with a happy ending) from the AP

Dejah Reed, 16, said she took the challenge four times — the final time was in February last year with a friend who didn't want to try it alone.

"I was laughing very hard and I coughed it out and I inhaled it into my lungs," she said. "I couldn't breathe."

Her father, Fred Reed, said he arrived home soon after to find Dejah "a pale bluish color. It was very terrifying. I threw her over my shoulder" and drove to a nearby emergency room.

Dejah was hospitalized for four days and went home with an inhaler and said she still has to use it when she gets short of breath from running or talking too fast. Her dad said she'd never had asthma or breathing problems before.