Doctors see ‘cinnamon challenge’ as a recipe for disaster
It is known as “the cinnamon challenge.’’ You try to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon without drinking water - or vomiting - preferably as a video camera is rolling. It may sound like silly fun, but health professionals and a growing number of local school systems are warning parents that the practice can cause health problems including respiratory distress and choking.
The YouTube generation finds the trend hilarious. How else to explain the more than 10.9 million hits for a video of a woman with big gold earrings spewing cinnamon after a failed attempt? Or the 30,000 cinnamon-related videos on the website? The challenge has been around for years, but a video posted by two NBA players, and the growth of social media and camera-enabled smart phones, have sent it viral in recent months.
“I couldn’t breathe out of my mouth,’’ reported Ava Peters, 12, a Watertown seventh-grader who took the challenge a week ago with a friend. Like many other youngsters, Peters considered it something painful that must be endured, like a final exam or a braces-tightening appointment. “I was very happy I got it over with.’’
Amy McCormack, a 17-year-old Medford High School senior, said she felt “somewhat accomplished’’ after taking the challenge, especially since her friend, fellow senior Amylee Van, failed to “prove’’ herself.
“I felt like I was going to puke,’’ said Van, 17, as the pair giggled.
Doctors aren’t laughing. They say the practice can cause serious injuries.
“The biggest problem is that the powder dries your mouth and throat, which makes it easier for it to enter your lungs instead of your stomach,’’ said James Mojica, a pulmonologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
That, in turn, can inflame the lungs, and lead to breathing difficulties, an acute lung injury, an aspiration pneumonia, or lung scarring.
Youths - the very people most commonly ingesting the cinnamon - are at particular risk, Mojica said. “Young patients can generate such high pressure when they cough that their lungs can collapse.’’
Michele Burns Ewald, medical director of the regional center for poison control and prevention in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said she has not seen cinnamon-related problems here. But in Ann Arbor, Mich., a high school student was hospitalized for four days with lung problems after trying the challenge, prompting the principal to warn the parents about the craze.
Some local schools are taking action.
The Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District recently sent parents a letter informing them about the dangers of breathing cinnamon into the lungs and warned them that children with asthma or other respiratory ailments are at higher risk of complications. “It looks so disturbing,’’ said Marie Fahey, the school district’s nurse leader.
The Boston school system has not detected a problem and is not sending alerts, but schools in Brookline and Newton both plan to do so.
“You figure if you can let a few people know, you provide a little bit of safety,’’ said Ruth Hoshino, the school nurse supervisor in Newton.
In Pottstown, Pa., the middle school banned the wearing of “open-top boots’’ after a student was caught trying to smuggle in the contraband spice for cinnamon challenges. (The ban, since lifted, was mainly aimed at keeping cellphones out of school, but the cinnamon challenge was also a factor.)
Even people old enough to know better are braving the cinnamon challenge - or using it as a public relations opportunity. Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois took the challenge on a radio show in February. During the 2011 NBA lockout, two Washington Wizards players, Nick Young and JaVale McGee, made a video of their attempts, showing Young triumphant and McGee coughing.
With celebrities treating it so lightly, it is no wonder youths see it as mere entertainment. Dioni Daley, 17, a senior at Charlestown High School, said she experienced an intense burning in her mouth, followed by lots of spitting, while a friend recorded the whole episode on video. Still, Daley said she might try it a second time. “If I’m bored,’’ she said. “I wasn’t prepared the first time.’’
While some parents might be concerned about the craze, others do not see a big threat.
“I have to admit I didn’t know anything about it - it sounded totally benign,’’ said Korin Zigler of East Bridgewater, whose 13-year-old daughter, Miranda, did the challenge last month. “At the risk of making myself look even more stupid, I’m a nurse.’’ But, she added: “There are a lot more formidable things to worry about at this age.’’
Miranda said it was no big deal.
“It’s really funny,’’ Miranda said, giggling. “My friend threw up when she did it.’’