What seems like a harmless teenage prank can permanently damage your lungs.
by Tara Haelle
When Marcos Moreno, now age 26, tried it two years ago, he thought it was hilarious, but he also said it burned his nose and throat. “I wouldn’t have expected it to be dangerous,” he says.
When Paddy Elliott, now age 25, tried it as teenager, he admits he and his friends were “looking for something dumb to do.” So his friend dared him to take the Cinnamon Challenge. He grabbed a spoonful of cinnamon, held his breath, and shoved it in his mouth like a spoonful of medicine, trying to conjure enough saliva to swallow it. “I didn’t want to inhale it because I knew that would hurt. I got it down, I gagged a little, and then I drank a glass of water,” he says. No biggie, right? Until a few hours later. “It made my stomach hurt a little, and it hurt like hell going to the bathroom later. It burned – it burned really bad. I’ve eaten some super spicy foods, and nothing hurt like that.”
The experience was even worse for Audrey Dodgen, a 31-year-old who tried it with her stepsister and cousins at a family event within the past year. Like Moreno and Elliott, she and her cousins had seen the YouTube videos of people doing the Cinnamon Challenge: a person tries to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon without water. After watching a YouTube video of GloZelle attempting it (over 29 million views, but I’m not linking to it) – like many other famous people have – Dodgen tried it after her sister did, but she didn’t think to hold her breath as Elliott did.
“I breathed as I put it in, and my sinuses were full of cinnamon for hours. It was like being attacked by these tiny cinnamon particles from the inside,” Dodgen says. “It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced, including getting my tattoo and my nose ring. It was seriously like being on fire, a whole new level of pain.” She says now that if she had realized the dangers of it and the pain she would experience, she wouldn’t have tried it.
Dodgen does not have asthma or any other respiratory conditions, but she says it’s easy to see how that could make the Cinnamon Challenge experience even worse. “It was awful and irritating, but if you had any respiratory issues or sinus issues, it would easily exacerbate them,” she says. And that is exactly what the authors of a Pediatrics study published this week on the Cinnamon Challenge are concerned about. The Cinnamon Challenge isn’t new – Elliott’s experience was over five years ago – but kids are still doing it, following the example of more than 50,000 YouTube videos.
What these dare-takers may not realize, however, is that the Cinnamon Challenge is not some harmless prank. It can have real medical consequences. The Pediatrics authors note that poison control centers in the US took 51 calls related to the challenge in 2011, which more than tripled to 178 in just the first half of 2012. Thirty of these calls required medical attention, including two with “potentially toxic” levels of exposure to the cinnamon.
Yes, you read that right: potentially toxic. A common misunderstanding about the word “toxin” is not realizing that it can apply to anything: cinnamon, chili powder, oxygen, even water. It’s not the “chemical” that makes the poison (everything around us and in us is made of chemicals). It’s the dose and route of exposure that matter, and a teaspoon of cinnamon is not a safe dose to take raw and plain.
The actual amount of cinnamon isn’t the problem – well over a teaspoon is fine in cookies, apple cider, pies, and other cooked goods. It’s the risk of aspiration (inhaling the stuff) in such a large dose. As Dodgen did, it’s easy to breathe in the cinnamon, “a caustic powder composed of cellulose fibers which are bioresistant and biopersistent; they neither dissolve nor biodegrade in the lungs,” as the Pediatrics authors put it. Too much non-dissolving, non-biodegrading cellulose fibers in your lungs can lead to long-term damage.
The authors could not find any clinical trials in the research literature related to cinnamon ingestion or inhalation (and seriously, why would they?), but they did find a couple on rats. In one of those, within a month after the rats had been forced to inhale cinnamon in either 7.6 µg or 4.2 µg particle sizes, researchers detected inflammation in the rats’ lungs. Three to six months later, the rats had developed masses of granulation in their lungs (granulomata), interstitial lung fibrosis, and other serious complications: an abnormal increase in immune cells in the lungs’ alveoli (tiny lung sacs), a build-up of lipids and proteins in the alveoli (which looks like this), and alveolar cell hyperplasia, which is a mass proliferation of cells. A year later, the rats had fibrotic lesions, or scarred lung tissue.
The other study, in which rats were given a 15-mg nasal dose of cinnamon and cellulose fibers, led to similar inflammation in the lungs that worsened over the next moth. Granted, these are rats snorting cinnamon, not reckless humans trying to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon. But the point is that the fibers that make up cinnamon do not break down in the lungs, and it’s easy to inhale them when doing this challenge (as countless YouTube videos show). “In humans, the fibers and other components of cinnamon can also cause allergic and irritant reactions, including acute symptoms and temporary, if not permanent, lung function changes,” the authors wrote.
In someone with asthma, it’s theoretically possible for the Cinnamon Challenge to be fatal if it leads to an asthma attack induced by inhaling the cinnamon which then causes the airways to swell and close. Fortunately, no deaths have been reported, and overall, the “known health risks of the challenge are relatively low,” but they are also completely unnecessary and avoidable. As Dodgen herself admits, “There’s probably a good reason we don’t snort cinnamon.”
Teenagers and young adults have been known to do some pretty stupid stuff – apparently the Condom Challenge and Tampon Challenge are the big thing at the moment (I won’t link, and you don’t want to know, but Google if you must). I remember that making yourself faint by cutting off your air “to get high” was the big thing when I was in junior high. Unfortunately, the “pass-out game” is still popular – and has killed teens, both from asphyxiation and from related freak accidents.
Admittedly, cinnamon seems pretty harmless. “We consume cinnamon, you find it in your spice cabinet, and I can totally see how people would think it’s innocuous,” Dodgen says. Generally, it is pretty innocuous. Feel free to enjoy copious amounts in apple pie, chewing gum, and cinnamon rolls. But seriously, folks, don’t even think about trying to swallow a tablespoon of the stuff.
Main feature image of cinnamon sticks by Ruxandra Moldoveanu. Disclosure: The three individuals at the start of the story are two former students and a former grad school classmate of the author.