‘Cinnamon Challenge’: A Nonsensical Game of Risk

If you have perused YouTube over the course of the last three months, you may have spent a good portion of your time observing the latest craze among teens and young adults – participation in the “cinnamon challenge.” Contenders in this highly risky endeavor are challenged to swallow a tablespoon (and sometimes more) of cinnamon in 60 seconds or less – an impossible feat.

Cinnamon blocks the glands that create saliva. Saliva is secreted whenever you consume food, drink a beverage or swallow in general. Saliva lubricates the esophagus and aids in the transport of food down into the digestive system. The drying effect created by cinnamon is deadly due to the risk of choking as the cinnamon gets stuck at various points on its way down, particularly when it goes down the “wrong pipe.”

Under normal circumstances, when you consume food and beverages, a flap covers the trachea to keep food and drink from going down the “wrong pipe,” but when the natural mechanisms that induce these subconscious physiological reactions are tampered with, choking becomes a hazard.  In the case of cinnamon – a finely ground spice – the gasping and coughing evoked in the attempt to swallow, causes particles to aspirate into upper airways, potentially travelling south to the lungs, which can result in an inflammatory infection, such as pneumonia. Add in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma and you will see a vast increase in the risk of death.

This has become the latest fad in thrill-seeking – and it is not limited to bored teens sensationalizing their attempts on YouTube. Celebrities and political figures, such as Govern Pat Quinn of Illinois, have attempted the challenge publicly as well.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) has seen a significant spike in cases involving the “cinnamon challenge” – significant, as in, a 240 percent increase over all of 2011. Only a quarter of the individuals that have contacted the center have needed medical attention, but that does not mean the game is not dangerous. The AAPCC is warning parents that this is something they need to discuss with their children and warn them about – tell them, “Just say no.”

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