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How dangerous is the cinnamon challenge, really?

Inhaling powdered tree bark probably isn't the best idea in the world

Teens do dumb things. Some use hand sanitizer to get drunk. Others get their fix stuffing vodka-soaked tampons up their you-know-whats. 

But one of the more resilient teen trends is receiving a lot of attention this week, thanks to a report published in the journal Pediatrics. For your viewing displeasure: The "cinnamon challenge." 

So what is it, exactly? It's a dare, mostly, consisting of a spoonful of cinnamon, a video camera, and a whole 'lotta discomfort. There are some 50,000 examples of people partaking on YouTube, and it's probably safe to assume that there are countless others who have taken the challenge but didn't have a camera handy.

But according to Pediatrics, there were more than 30 cases of patients requiring medical attention last year after ingesting the cinnamon. That "including ventilator support for some teens who suffered collapsed lungs," says USA Today. Poison control centers nationwide reported 222 cinnamon-related exposures in 2012, up from 51 in 2011.

Obviously, inhaling ground-up tree bark probably isn't the best idea if you enjoy being a healthy, functional human. David Kroll at Forbes points to a 1995 paper in which "rats given a single intratracheal dose of cinnamon powder develop[ed] severe lung diseases a month later." What's more is that the spice can trigger an asthma attack, and is incredibly difficult to get out of your lungs:

The cellulose matrix of tree bark acts like a sustained release medicine, but in this case releasing a painful and damaging chemical. The body cannot metabolize cellulose. That's probably okay for the stuff that’s swallowed. It'll only burn tomorrow morning at potty time. But the stuff in the lungs is hard to expire. In my grandfather's day, inhaling coal dust led to a condition called black lung. In my father's day, people would get a lung cancer called mesothelioma from inhaling asbestos fibers. [Forbes]

But teens will be teens. In fact, a recent slew of studies seem to suggest that the teenage brain is less developed than we ever imagined, which may help explain why teenagers are egotistical, reckless, and softwired for stupidity. According to NPR, "That's because the nerve cells that connect teenagers' frontal lobes with the rest of their brains are sluggish."

Teenagers don't have as much of the fatty coating called myelin, or "white matter," that adults have in this area. Think of it as insulation on an electrical wire. Nerves need myelin for nerve signals to flow freely. Spotty or thin myelin leads to inefficient communication between one part of the brain and another. […]

Recent studies show that neural insulation isn't complete until the mid-20s, [which] also may explain why teenagers often seem so maddeningly self-centered. [NPR]

It's important to note that no one has died from the cinnamon challenge, and a few critics think the recent media attention sparked by the Pediatrics report may be overblown. "Should people know that getting too much cinnamon too near their lungs is potentially unhealthy? Sure," says James Hamblin at The Atlantic. And while we appreciate the abundance of caution...

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. [The Atlantic]

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