CINCINNATI—If you type "Cinnamon Challenge” into any search engine, thousands of videos will appear with taglines like "Epic Fail” and still images of an experiment seemingly gone wrong.
This is because the "challenge” is practically impossible and may even be dangerous, according to a new report published in the journal Pediatrics and a UC pulmonary expert.
The cinnamon challenge—a game that has gone viral in recent months—involves a person eating a tablespoon of cinnamon in under 60 seconds without the use of water.
In the report released last week, analysts found that in 2011, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received 51 calls related to the cinnamon challenge. Then, in the first six months of 2012, the number of calls rose to 178. Thirty of those incidents were serious enough to require medical attention. Some participants in the challenge suffered collapsed lungs and ended up on ventilators.
"It is alarming to see the effects that the cinnamon challenge can have on the lungs, particularly in those who have chronic lung problems,” says Peter Lenz, MD, assistant professor in the division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at the University of Cincinnati and a UC Health pulmonologist.
"The cinnamon can cause damage in multiple ways. As an allergen, it can trigger an asthma attack, which in severe cases could be fatal. If the cinnamon is aspirated or inhaled into the windpipe and into the lungs, then it can cause significant scarring or even fibrosis.”
Lenz continues that when aspirated, the cinnamon, which contains cellulose—a long chain of linked sugar molecules that is the main component of plant cell walls and the basic building block for many textiles and paper—can get lodged in the lungs and can cause an inflammation cascade that leads to the replacement of normal lung tissue with scar-like tissue. Cellulose cannot be broken down within human lungs so it can remain in the lungs and continue to cause damage.
"It’s especially dangerous for people who already have a lung condition or breathing problem, like asthma or cystic fibrosis,” he says. "People with cinnamon allergies are also at a greater risk of injury or severe hypersensitivity reactions.”
Lenz says the American Association of Poison Control Centers further describes the unintended risks, including the fact that the cinnamon quickly dries out the mouth, making swallowing difficult. As a result, teens who engage in this activity often choke and vomit, injuring their mouths, throats and lungs.
Teens who unintentionally breathe the cinnamon into their lungs also risk getting pneumonia as a result. The full warning is available on the association’s website. Lenz strongly advises against the challenge but says if you or a loved one have already done it and experience persisting tightness in the chest or throat, hear squeaking noises when breathing or are having a hard time taking in air, see a physician or get to the emergency room.
"Everyone has choices to make in what they do to their bodies,” he says. "This is just a warning that something that seems harmless and funny can be really serious and can cause harm.”