'Cinnamon Challenge' Poses Potentially Serious Health Risks

Steven Fox

April 22, 2013

The so-called "Cinnamon Challenge" is an adolescent dare in which an individual attempts to swallow a spoonful of dry cinnamon. The results, which typically include violent coughing and choking, are often video recorded and posted on the Internet.

The phenomenon has been gaining steam during the past decade, in large part because of viral videos. Now, however, an article published in the May issue of Pediatrics highlights potentially serious health risks associated with the "Cinnamon Challenge."

"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," write Amelia Grant-Alfieri, from the Division of Pediatric Clinical Research, University of Miami, Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, Miami, Florida, and colleagues.

The authors point out that cinnamon, when used sparingly, as a spice, is harmless, but when ingested in larger quantities, can be dangerous. That is partly because cinnamon is composed of cellulose fibers that, if aspirated into the lungs, neither dissolve nor biodegrade.

The authors say that although no studies of cinnamon exposure have been conducted in humans, several animal studies have shown that intratracheal exposure to cinnamon can have deleterious effects, including granulomata, interstitial fibrosis, alveolar histiocytosis, alveolar lip proteinosis, and alveolar cell hyperplasia.

Attempts to swallow even just a spoonful of dry cinnamon carry a real risk for aspiration, the authors say. At least 30 individuals who engaged in the practice have required medical attention, and people with broncho-pulmonary diseases, including asthma, may be especially prone to injury.

During 2011, the US American Association of Poison Control Centers received 51 calls related to the Cinnamon Challenge. Since then, the number of children and adolescents engaging in the practice has apparently increased dramatically: During the first 6 months of 2012, Poison Control Centers reported 178 calls related to intentional ingestion of cinnamon powder.

That surge in calls corresponds to the number of Cinnamon Challenge videos posted on social media Web sites.

The authors conclude, "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."

This study was supported in part by the US Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration, the National Center for Toxicological Research, the L. Coulter Foundation, the Batchelor Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Pediatrics. 2013;131:833-835.