How Deadly Is a Spoonful of Cinnamon?

Major medical journal takes on the eat-cinnamon-feel-terrible meme very late in the game; awareness and mystique of proscribed act heightened
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A few years ago, a trend called the cinnamon challenge reemerged. I say reemerged, because even though the Internet likes to think it invented the challenge, cinnamon and boredom are not new things. The act was almost certainly born long ago on the high seas at the hands of travel-weary spice traders. 

For the apparently 20 or so people who've not yet seen one of the 51,000 videos of this done on YouTube, the cinnamon challenge is complex and conceptually nuanced. If I were to really strip it down to its most rudimentary elements: A person tries to swallow a spoonful of dry cinnamon and then feels terrible physically and emotionally. 

Actually, well, that's all it is. Except for the other standard element, which is friends and/or family off-camera encouraging and relishing the imminent failure, recording it, and then putting it on public display so that the act casts an endless shadow over the person's remaining existence. 

Some people are able to swallow the cinnamon without looking like they want to die. Most are not. From my experience, those who get it down must be using something like McCormick convenience-store cinnamon, stale and weak. Fresh ground cinnamon, while I can't tell a difference in recipes, is immensely more volatile when coating your entire oropharynx.

After seeing a person try to eat a spoonful of cinnamon and then retch in agony, the apparently instinctual reaction is to want to try it yourself, as the 51,000 videos suggest. That number is according to a commentary piece published in the journal Pediatrics yesterday, written by Amelia Grant-Alfieri, Dr. Judy Schaechter, and Dr. Steven Lipshultz at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Their article was then covered by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Time, and NPR:

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Cinnamon is ground tree bark, and it doesn't belong in anyone's lungs. That's my disclaimer: The cinnamon challenge has nothing at all to recommend it. That said, anything you put in your mouth can potentially end up in your lungs. Everyone occasionally inhales particulates. We have no human research trials to attest to the danger of eating cinnamon; the scare is based on an increasing number of calls to poison control centers. Meanwhile going into full-on terror mode about the cinnamon challenge is itself a hazard.

All of the aforementioned articles mention that the cinnamon challenge causes things like coughing, vomiting, "and even collapsed lungs." The Pediatrics journal article mentions that someone endured a collapsed lung, citing their source as this ABC nightly news segment -- which is of the sort where, you know, Ten everyday household items are probably chemically-castrating your child as we speak -- coming up after the break:

Beyond that case report, Grant-Alfieri et al. mention that there were 122 calls to U.S. poison control centers during the first half of 2012 that were related to "intentional misuse or abuse" of cinnamon. They look in-depth at 26 calls in Miami alone during a 12-month period: "Most patients had only minor consequences that resolved after dilution, irrigation, and washing the affected area ... of the 3 that did require follow-up, symptoms resolved in 1 to 2.5 hours."

They also describe a study in rats, where researchers injected cinnamon right into their windpipes. Some rats developed fibrotic lung diseases months later. Cinnamon particles do not get absorbed by our lungs, and it's reasonable to assume the same chronic diseases could develop over time in people -- if we injected cinnamon into our windpipes. Which is not what the cinnamon challenge is. A normal person should cough and clear out all but an incidental amount of cinnamon.

I love that medical journals are addressing what's happening on the Internet. They even made puns. "Given the allure of social media, peer pressure, and a trendy new fad, pediatricians and parents have a 'challenge' of their own in counseling tweens and teens ... " It's great. Should people know that getting too much cinnamon too near their lungs is potentially unhealthy? Sure. Is it possible that in 40 years we see a rash of chronic lung disease that we trace back to massive cinnamon exposures? Yes. In my opinion, not likely. Can particles get into your lungs and cause a fatal asthma attack? Also possible, but the worst thing definitively reported in the roughly five years that this has been an Internet trend is someone coughing so hard that their lung collapsed. That sometimes happens when people cough hard. 

The journal article concludes: "Although we cannot make a strong statement on documented pulmonary sequelae in humans, it is prudent to warn that the Cinnamon Challenge has a high likelihood to be damaging to the lungs."

We of course appreciate caution, but a case for a "high likelihood" they have not made. Every parent should not rush their child to the emergency room or lose sleep looking back at having let a kid try to eat a spoonful of cinnamon. It doesn't mean they are doomed to future lung disease or won't get into a good college. It does mean they bow to peer pressure or imitate things they see on YouTube, though, which warrants a talking-to.

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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