By Amy Norton
MONDAY, April 22 (HealthDay News) -- As if parents didn't have enough to worry about, it seems a growing number of kids are taking the "Cinnamon Challenge" -- a stunt that has landed some in the ER, pediatricians warn.
The Cinnamon Challenge sounds simple but is almost impossible: Swallow a tablespoon of ground cinnamon in 60 seconds without the help of a drink. Invariably, the taker ends up gagging and coughing up the spice -- creating a big brown cloud dubbed "dragon breath."
Onlookers apparently find it funny, said Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a pediatrics professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida. There are over 51,000 YouTube clips of the stunt -- one of which was viewed more than 19 million times as of last August, Lipshultz and his colleagues report in the May issue of Pediatrics.
But it could be dangerous for the person who downs the cinnamon.
Usually, people suffer no more than burning in the throat, mouth and nose, and a bad cough. But, Lipshultz said, ground cinnamon can be inhaled into the lungs, and some kids have ended up in the ER with problems as serious as a collapsed lung.
"We wanted to bring this to people's attention," Lipshultz said. "This seems to be an increasing problem, and based on animal studies, there's the potential for lasting effects (on the lungs)."
In animal studies, he and his colleagues noted, a single dose of cinnamon "dust" has been found to trigger lasting lung inflammation, thickening and scarring.
Cinnamon is composed of cellulose fibers that do not break down if they enter the lungs, according to Lipshultz. No one knows if Cinnamon Challenge takers face any risk of long-term lung damage, but there is evidence of immediate risks.
In 2011, Lipshultz's team said, U.S. poison control centers fielded 51 calls related to the stunt. In just the first half of 2012, there were 122 calls linked to "misuse or abuse" of the spice.
At least 30 challenge takers have needed medical attention, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Late last year, ER doctors at the Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill., saw about a dozen 9-year-olds who'd tried the stunt.
Dry, loose cinnamon can burn and irritate the mucous membranes that line the digestive and respiratory tracts, including the lungs. One concern is that the powder will be inhaled into the lungs, said Dr. Christina Hantsch, a toxicologist with the Loyola emergency department.
Another worry is that, if a challenge taker throws up -- as they often do -- vomit will be inhaled back into lungs, Hantsch added. That could lead to inflammation and infection known as aspiration pneumonia.
Lipshultz said the jump in calls to poison control centers in 2012 coincided with the surge in Cinnamon Challenge videos on YouTube. And the number of Google hits on the topic rose from 0.2 million in 2009 to 2.4 million in the first half of 2012.
Plus, it's not only teenagers who are flaunting their encounters with the Cinnamon Challenge. Celebrities and even politicians have posted their own videos, both Lipshultz and Hantsch pointed out.
"And then if their peers start doing it, too, kids feel social pressure to try it," Lipshultz said.
What can parents do, short of locking up the spice rack? Hantsch suggested parents pay attention to what their kids are viewing online, and talk with them about the potential dangers of this seemingly harmless stunt.
Lipshultz agreed. If kids know there are serious risks, they might be dissuaded. "Our hope is that if they have the information, they'll make smarter decisions," he said.
Cinnamon is not the only spice of abuse, however. Ground nutmeg -- when snorted, smoked or eaten in large amounts -- can create a marijuana-like high, Hantsch noted.
Unfortunately, she added, "there are many household items that can be abused."
Those range from glue to hand sanitizers to aerosol cooking sprays -- and even marshmallows. A challenge popular with kids, Hantsch said, is the "Chubby Bunny," where you shove as many marshmallows into your mouth as possible, then try to say the words "chubby bunny."
At least two children have choked to death trying the stunt, she added.