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Updated March 28, 2012:
The number of calls to poison centers concerning teens ingesting cinnamon as part of the “cinnamon challenge” has increased dramatically in the first three months of this year, according to the American Association of Poison Control Center’s National Poison Data System.
From January to March, poison centers received 139 calls regarding teen exposure to cinnamon, and 30 required medical evaluation. In 2011, poison centers received 51 calls regarding cinnamon exposure.
As a result of the increase, poison control experts are now warning parents and teens about the health risks associated with the intentional misuse or abuse of cinnamon, according to Alvin C. Bronstein, MD, managing and medical director for the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center.
“Although cinnamon is a common flavoring, swallowing a spoonful may result in unpleasant effects that can pose a health risk,” Bronstein said.
“We urge parents and caregivers to talk to their teens about the cinnamon challenge, explaining that what may seem like a silly game can have serious health consequences. AAPCC does not recommend using cinnamon this way.”
When your kids go digging into the spice drawer, don’t expect any great culinary creation. They may be looking for the cinnamon, which they want to attempt to swallow, without water.
Spitting, gagging, coughing -- and often vomiting -- follows.
Ah, the fun and games of youth. It’s the “cinnamon challenge,” an old dare game that’s resurfaced in popularity and gone viral thanks to YouTube videos showing people of all ages attempting it. One of the most popular is by GloZell, a woman with huge hoop earrings, who slurps the cinnamon from a soup ladle and has a theatrical coughing reaction. It has been viewed more than 9.8 million times.
That’s the video my kids were inspired by. Recently, along with friends, they attempted their own challenge on our back deck. There was much laughing and joking, until my 9-year-old son had a reaction that involved violent coughing, a blood-curdling scream, choking sounds, and tears. At that point the kids decided the challenge really wasn’t that funny anymore.
In fact the cinnamon challenge is being banned from schools and has some doctors and poison control experts saying that, while it’s meant to be in good fun, there is potential danger.
Dr. Russell Migita, Clinical Director of Emergency Services at Seattle Children’s Hospital, says that while he hasn’t treated anyone with problems related to cinnamon ingestion, the practice could easily cause lung problems.
“Any fine powder, if inhaled, can cause irritation to the lungs,” Migita says. “Cinnamon is a pretty drying agent and has some heat to it. Anyone who gets that kind of powder in their lungs, it doesn’t feel good.”
The extreme coughing most people experience can be a harmful side effect, says Migita who has watched cinnamon challenge YouTube videos.
“People who cough that hard can have problems that can range from collapsing a lung to having lungs that get really inflamed, or pulmonary edema,” Migita says.
Amy Hanoian-Fontana, education specialist at the Connecticut Poison Control Center, says that the biggest concerns of ingesting cinnamon come from side effects such as vomiting or an allergic reaction. People with asthma or respiratory-compromised conditions are more at risk.
“People usually vomit,” Hanoian-Fontana says. "The dry fine powder coats all the mucous membrane; someone could end up with respiratory distress or trouble breathing. The risk is more from a mouth, throat or lung injury than any poisoning reaction from the cinnamon.”
She adds: “If a school nurse calls, we tell them to wipe out the mouth, rinse out their mouth and assess for respiratory problems ... and get as hydrated as possible."
Hanoian-Fontana warns that cinnamon is an irritant that may trigger an allergic reaction. “If someone has a severe allergic reaction, and goes into respiratory distress, go to the emergency room as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, some school districts are trying – in various ways -- to discourage students from attempting the challenge.
According to a report in the Taunton Daily Gazette, the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District in New Jersey sent a letter home to parents saying school nurses have heard of students eating cinnamon and suggest “that parents should talk to their kids because it’s not harmless fun.”
And in Pottstown, Pa., a middle school has reported incidents of students doing the cinnamon challenge on campus, according to the Wall Street Journal. As a result, the school put a ban on “open top boots” to keep kids from smuggling things like cinnamon and cellphones into school.
John Armato, community relations director for the Pottstown School District told the Wall Street Journal: “Young people looking for an exciting challenge that could lead to danger is an age-old problem.”
Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Migita says there’s little benefit for kids in doing the cinnamon challenge, given there is a chance they could get hurt.
“If we know there is this potential risk and we can keep the cinnamon away from them, I would be in support of that,” he says.
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