The Cinnamon Challenge: A View from the ER

As a physician who has helped teens in the Emergency Department because they took “the cinnamon challenge,” I have witnessed the dangers of this stunt. The consequences are not pretty. And yes–it can kill you.

The so-called “challenge” involves trying to swallow a tablespoonful of cinnamon powder in under 60 seconds without drinking anything. Without enough saliva to moisten the powder, people invariably begin to gag, choke and cough violently. Those who manage to swallow all the cinnamon still risk developing wheezing and a chronic cough.

An article in this week’s Pediatrics journal reinforces my experience caring for these patients: Poison centers received 200 cinnamon challenge calls during the first six months of 2012, and 30 of these  patients needed medical attention and treatment. Complications included choking, respiratory failure and collapsed lungs, along with the prospect of developing “reactive airways”—that is, wheezing due to exposure to the cinnamon powder.

Cinnamon powder contains cellulose, an undigestible fiber that can cause a severe inflammation in the lungs. This can lead to long-term wheezing and a chronic cough, placing patients at further risk for bouts of pneumonitis (inflamed lungs) or even aspiration pneumonia.

The cinnamon challenge is especially dangerous for people with asthma, emphysema or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Since their lungs are already vulnerable and at risk for more severe spasm in their lower airways, these patients are more likely to develop complications—or even die.

I urge parents to have a serious discussion with their children about the dangers of this stunt to prevent them from ever attempting it.

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