Ever since the dawn of the double dog dare, kids have been doing dumb stunts "just because," and the latest craze in pointless exploits is the Cinnamon Challenge. In case you haven't heard, here's the premise: Try to swallow a spoonful of the spice in under a minute without a drink. It's much harder than you might think; most attempts erupt in a coughing fit and a cloud of orange dust dubbed "dragon breath" by aficionados of the sport.
The fad has a hardcore following: YouTube boasts over 50,000 videos of contenders attempting the feat—some as young as 6 or 4 or even 2. Other "grown-ups," from NBA athletes to the governor of Illinois, have also given it a go. In short, everyone's doing it, so don't be surprised if your offspring start eyeing the spice rack the next time they're bored and your back is turned (that is, assuming they haven't tried it already).
But a new study in the journal Pediatrics warns that parents shouldn't just roll their eyes and write off these hijinks as harmless fun. "The cinnamon challenge poses serious health risks," says Steven Lipshultz, professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. In his research he found that the spice, if inhaled, can get lodged in the lungs "much like asbestos," he explains.
Cinnamon is made of cellulose, which doesn't break down easily, plus it's an irritant—that's why a sprinkling on our toast or coffee gives it some kick. In the lungs, this pungent powder can lead to inflammation, breathing difficulties, infections like pneumonia, and coughing fits so violent the lungs could collapse. In studies done on rats, Lipshultz found that cinnamon inhalation could cause permanent scarring in the lungs and chronic, incurable conditions like pulmonary fibrosis.
While the chances of participants encountering these pitfalls are slim, Lipshultz points out that in 2012, U.S. poison control centers received 178 calls related to the cinnamon challenge, with at least 30 requiring medical attention. One cautionary tale is Dejah Reed from Ypsilanti, Michigan. Last year, at the age of fourteen, she and a friend choked on spoonfuls that caused her to cough so hard, her right lung collapsed.
"Her face was blue," recalls her father Fred, whom the friend called immediately for help. "She was gasping for air like a fish, slipping in and out of consciousness." Fred rushed her to the hospital, where Dejah was put on a ventilator, then battled pneumonia for four days before returning home. Her condition shocked her doctor, who'd admitted trying the cinnamon challenge himself. It was a wakeup call for Dejah's father as well.
"I knew what the challenge was, but like most parents I just brushed it off. I didn't know the risks," he admits. "If I see my kid car surfing, I know that's wrong. But something as simple as cinnamon is not as obvious."
Lipshultz worries that the cases he's documented are just "the tip of the iceberg," and that more cinnamon-related snafus will ensue as these viral videos spread.
"This challenge has been around for several decades, but it wasn't until the popularity of YouTube that it really took off," he says. It's one of many stunts that have garnered worldwide fame online, including the Lemon Challenge (eat a whole lemon), the Salt and Ice Challenge (pour salt and ice on your arm, which causes a burning sensation), and—the latest and grossest—the Condom Challenge (snort a condom up your nose and pull it out your mouth).
But in Lipshultz's opinion, the cinnamon challenge is the worst due to the severity of the risks. "We all do things we regret, but most of them don’t have long-term health consequences," he says. "Here, for sure, a certain percentage of kids who do this will wind up in intensive care. Even a single exposure can lead to a lifetime of problems."
The site Cinnamonchallenge.com, which showcases these videos, also posts a stern warning, although it probably just eggs people on: The Cinnamon Challenge can be dangerous and shouldn't be taken lightly. It's going to burn, you are going to cough, and regret you tried. Schools who've spotted perpetrators of this perilous pastime have begun cracking down. In Pottstown, Pennsylvania, school officials banned open-top boots where students were smuggling the seasoning. In Clinton, Connecticut, a principal was put on leave for failing to report a group she saw downing cinnamon during lunch.
Lipshultz thinks it's crucial that kids and parents learn the hazards of the cinnamon challenge. In case you're worried wagging a finger won't carry much weight, you can steer them toward Nocinnamonchallenge.com, a site launched by Dejah to spread the word.
"Nobody knows this is dangerous," she says. "People tell me, 'Oh my god, I had no idea.'"
Since then, her friends have moved on to other dares—none of which she's tempted to try herself. "I've learned my lesson," she says. "As soon as I saw the Condom Challenge, I didn't laugh at all. I was disgusted."