Although the Harlem Shake has mostly eclipsed last year’s viral craze of teens swallowing a tablespoon of powdered spice, the "cinnamon challenge" hasn’t been completely retired yet. YouTube videos continue to be posted of the daft dare in which kids try to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon without water, and inevitably gag, choke, spew and sputter as they expel the burning substance from their lungs.
On the surface the stunt may seem harmless enough; it’s cinnamon after all, an ingredient we associate with hot apple cider and oatmeal cookies. But in fact, a new research paper from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has found that the challenge may result in "long-lasting lesions, scarring and inflammation of the airway" and even lung damage. The report says that the popular spice is a caustic powder composed of cellulose fibers that don't dissolve in the lungs; cinnamon also contains an oil that can cause allergic, irritating or toxic reactions in some people.
Across the country last year, at least 30 patients required medical attention after attempting the challenge, including ventilator support for some teens who suffered collapsed lungs, says the paper, which was published in the April issue of Pediatrics.
In animal studies done on cinnamon, the lungs almost immediately become inflamed after a single exposure and still show signs of damage weeks, even months later, says study author Steven Lipshultz. "In humans, that would be the equivalent of an elderly person developing emphysema and needing oxygen."
Consumed in small amounts or mixed with other foods, cinnamon does not cause problems for most people. For teens and young adults with underlying lung diseases such as asthma, ingesting large quantities of dry cinnamon has the potential to pose significant and unnecessary health risks, notes Lipshultz.
"It could really put them in a bad way," he says.
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