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Google "cinnamon challenge" and you'll find tens of thousands of videos of teens attempting to ingest a tablespoon of the spice in 60 seconds without water, leading to coughing and gagging. Some people find food dares like this funny, in a Jackass kind of way.
What's not funny, according to a new study, published in Pediatrics: the potential for serious injury. Researchers say that this eating challenge can lead to pneumonia, even long-term lung damage. "Cinnamon is tree bark made of cellulose fibers which don't break down," says Steven Lipshultz, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and co-author of the study. "It's also coated with cinnamon oil, which is an irritant. When kids do this, cinnamon coats the mouth an esophagus, and it's not easily cleared. Even adding water makes it like a paste, and still hard to get rid of."
What makes many of the videos compelling to watch is a "dragon breath" moment where a burst of orange powder leaves the mouth. But after the powder is coughed out, the person takes a deep breath in to recover, leaving the airway covered in cinnamon dust.
In the first half of 2012, there were 178 calls to poison control related to the cinnamon challenge, a surge consistent with increased viewership of related videos online. Kids, especially those with pre-existing lung conditions like asthma, have landed in the hospital with an attack or even pneumonia. Although no long-term studies have been done on humans, animal studies show scarring in lungs.
The fact that cinnamon is not a controlled substance belies its potential to harm if inhaled in large amounts. That's why Dr. Lipshultz hopes pediatricians will learn more about this dangerous teen fad and take the time to talk to patients about it.'"Every single one of us, when we look back, regret we did things out of peer pressure," he says, "But most things don't have potentially lifelong medical consequences."
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