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Clinicians should be aware of ‘Cinnamon Challenge’


Hoping to halt the Internet-fueled fad that dares kids to swallow a tablespoon of powdered cinnamon, two pediatric experts urge fellow physicians, parents and teachers to discuss the potential harm of the “Cinnamon Challenge” with adolescents.

“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,” wrote Steven E. Lipshultz, MD, and Judy Schaechter, MD, MBA, of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, and Amelia Grant-Alfieri, an undergraduate student.

“Parents should be reminded that their advice matters in countering peer pressure. Further, schools and pediatricians should be encouraged to discuss with children the ‘Cinnamon Challenge’ and its possible harmful effects.”

The perspective piece was published April 22 on the website of the journal Pediatrics.

A YouTube sensation, the “Cinnamon Challenge” apparently is widely familiar to adolescents, but not to their parents, teachers and physicians. Schaechter, an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, recalls attending a recent dinner with a dozen pediatricians where she was the only one who had heard of the dare, which entails swallowing a tablespoon of ground cinnamon in 60 seconds without drinking fluids.

The website dedicated to the challenge warns, “It’s going to burn, you are going to cough and regret you tried.” Although most young people who take the challenge endure only temporary effects, the authors said the stunt has led to dozens of calls to poison centers and ED visits, and even hospitalizations for adolescents who required ventilator support for collapsed lungs.

Lipshultz and his team also warn that swallowing so much cinnamon, a caustic powder composed of cellulose fibers that neither dissolve nor biodegrade in the lungs, has shown in animal studies to cause lesions, scarring and inflammation of the airways and lungs, and other lasting effects such as progressive pulmonary fibrosis. This concern may especially be significant among those with asthma, pulmonary cystic fibrosis, chronic lung disease or a hypersensitivity to the spice.

“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,” the authors wrote. “These discussions can also help children learn to weigh the risks and rewards of yielding to peer pressure when considering senseless and risky behaviors.”

As of August, the authors noted, more than 50,000 YouTube videos of young people choking, gagging and coughing as they accepted the dare had appeared on the Internet, attracting millions of viewers, predominantly ages 13 to 24, an age group that is “associated with the greatest need for conformity.”

The authors posited that the growing Internet presence of the “Cinnamon Challenge” led to the surge in calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers related to the fad. In the first six months of 2012, the center received 178 challenge-related calls, more than triple the 51 such calls the center received the entire previous year. Of those 178 calls, 122, or 69%, were classified as intentional misuse or abuse (consistent with the “Cinnamon Challenge”) and about 30 of them, or 17%, required medical attention.

Even though the known health risks of the “Cinnamon Challenge” are relatively low, the authors wrote, “they are unnecessary and avoidable.”

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