05/10/2013 02:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cinnamon Is for Eating, Not Inhalation

Common sense is slow to develop in humans, and many a time young people will sit around throwing around silly ideas -- and then go on to act on the silliest of them all.

And as if kids can't come up with enough stupidity all on their own, access to a worldwide web of thoughts feeds them more tricks and dares -- YouTube is great at that.

The cinnamon challenge is nothing new, but I heard about it from my kids only a couple of years ago. The challenge: Swallow a tablespoon of ground cinnamon in 60 seconds, without drinking fluids.

Fail to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon, and you might still have your moment of glory in this viral sensation: More than 50,000 YouTube clips, one popular clip with 30 million views (these numbers might be irrelevant by the end of today) and it's all over Twitter. Subjecting the "cinnamon challenge" to a Google fight (fun site in which you can battle two words or phrases against each other to see which is more Internet popular) shows that "cinnamon challenge," with its 15 million search results, is more popular than "chewing gum" (7 million).

Cinnamon sounds innocent enough -- every baking home has some, and what can be more natural than an ancient spice from tree bark?

So here's an opportunity to teach kids a few basic principles in toxicology:

  • Dose matters. As Paracelsus famously said: "The dose makes the poison." Even water and oxygen -- which we can't survive without -- can be toxic if you have too much of them.
  • Safe to eat doesn't mean it's safe to introduce into your body in any other way. Do you like hot peppers? So do I. They're pleasant only by mouth. Water is fine to swallow, and to wash with, but if you inhale it, it's called drowning.

Back to the cinnamon challenge.

An article in the recent issue of Pediatrics warns that the cinnamon challenge isn't all fun and games. Inhaling cinnamon can damage the lungs and airways, and although the effects are usually temporary, it has led to many emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and a few teens even requiring ventilator support for collapsed lungs.

You see, the cellulose fibers in cinnamon, once in the lungs, do not dissolve or break down -- they stay there and are not inert. The authors, led by Steven Lipshultz, cite a study in which cellulose was introduced through the windpipe of rats. This caused inflammation and lung damage, and the results were apparent even a year after the exposure.

When a teen attempts to swallow a large amount of cinnamon, there's a pretty high risk of breathing in some of the cinnamon powder. The powder can damage the lining of the airways and lungs and even cause permanent scarring. Introducing a foreign substance into the airways is even more dangerous for people who have asthma.

Bottom line, there are better -- tastier, and more creative -- uses for cinnamon.

I'm just afraid that warning kids about the dangers of the challenge -- or locking the cinnamon along with the liquor, as some parents have suggested -- will introduce it to the few that haven't heard about it yet, and just increase its allure.

Dr. Ayala

For more by Ayala Laufer-Cahana, M.D., click here.

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