Challenging the Cinnamon Challenge

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In my book, The 5 Simple Truths of Raising Kids, I advocate for challenging assertions about our kids, especially when the assertions come from popular media and employ copious amounts of hyperbole. In an effort to practice what I preach, I was skeptical of the recent headlines in the The Atlantic and The New York Times that warned of the deadliness of the Cinnamon Challenge game. I assumed they were over-hyping something tragic that randomly happened somewhere to some unfortunate kid.

I was wrong.

The Atlantic and The New York Times were reporting on a study from Pediatrics…my Pediatrics. Well, it does not actually belong to me, but those of you who are familiar with my work with know that I love Pediatrics and rely on its well-vetted, high quality articles. If it is in Pediatrics, I thought, then there must be truth to it.

I was wrong…again.

In their article, titled, “Ingesting and Aspirating Dry Cinnamon by Children and Adolescents: The “Cinnamon Challenge,” authors Amelia Grant-Alfieri, Judy Schaechter, Steven E. Lipshultz write that “the Cinnamon Challenge has led to dozens of calls to poison centers, emergency department visits, and even hospitalizations for adolescents requiring ventilator support for collapsed lungs.”

The Cinnamon Challenge involves attempting to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon powder, without drinking water, in under 60 seconds. It seems impossible, it definitely is unpleasant, and thousands of children and adults have tried it, often on video that ends up on YouTube.

If the Cinnamon Challenge is sending kids to the hospital, then people, like you, who care about kids need to know about it.

The information included a citation, as I would expect from articles in Pediatrics.  I accessed the citation to uncover the actual numbers of kids who are being hospitalized. The Atlantic and The New York Times weren’t over-hyping something tragic that randomly happened somewhere to some unfortunate kid, Pediatrics was. The article’s assertion that the Cinnamon Challenge has caused “hospitalizations for adolescents requiring ventilator support for collapsed lungs” was based on a local television news story from Akron, Ohio, about a young girl in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who, by her own account, started laughing during her attempt at the Cinnamon Challenge and accidentally inhaled the powder into her lungs.

Not “adolescents” with an “s,” but “adolescent.” Singular.  According to the Pediatrics article, and every article I have been able to access, the Cinnamon Challenge has caused one collapsed lung in one kid.  One.

Shame on you, Pediatrics.

Is there a danger to inhaling cinnamon or any cellulose powder into one’s lungs? Absolutely. Does the Cinnamon Challenge increase the likelihood of this happening? Logic would suggest that it does. It also seems evident that the number of people attempting the Cinnamon Challenge is increasing. In 2011, American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) received 51 calls related to the Cinnamon Challenge. In 2012, that number had jumped to 222. Of those calls to the AAPCC, 17% required unspecified medical attention. There seems to be little data on what happens in those cases that require medical attention. The authors of the Pediatrics article report on follow-up data from 22 Cinnamon Challenge related calls to the Florida Poison Information Center. In those follow-ups, all symptoms resolved within 2½ hours.

If you suspect that the kids in your life are interested in taking the Cinnamon Challenge, then by all means warn them of the dangers. If you are wondering about how much time and effort to devote to worrying about the Cinnamon Challenge, consider this:  between 2007 and 2011, the number of hospital room visits by 12 to 17 year-olds that were related to energy drinks rose from 1,145 to 1,499. So what do we have to fear? Red Bull or cinnamon or fear itself?

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