A grief-stricken Kentucky mom is speaking out about the dangers of a common kitchen ingredient — cinnamon — after her 4-year-old son died from asphyxiation because he accidentally ingested too much of the ground spice.
“He was completely healthy, no problems,” Brianna Radar, mother of the boy, Matthew, told WLEX. But then he climbed up onto a kitchen counter, got a hold of the cinnamon, and tried to swallow some. “He started choking,” she said. “It was like he was having a seizure and just collapsed.”
She rushed Matthew to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead just an hour and a half later. The coroner, according to WLEX, ruled the death accidental, the result of some of the cinnamon getting into Matthew’s lungs while he was choking.
Radar says she is going public with the tragedy in an attempt to dissuade teens from purposefully swallowing the spice for the “cinnamon challenge” — a dangerous social-media dare game that has resulted in tens of thousands of videos, most involving kids choking and struggling to breathe after trying to down a spoonful of the spice without any water.
The cinnamon dare has been around for well over a decade, but its popularity took off just a few years ago thanks to a boost on social media — with one website devoted to the challenge claiming that more than 40,000 such videos have appeared. As a result, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), which collects information from poison control centers across the United States, the number of calls to such centers regarding teens swallowing cinnamon has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2014, centers received 251 calls regarding cinnamon emergencies — up from 51 in 2011.
Deaths like the young Radar’s are “pretty rare,” notes Henry Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center of Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Still, he notes, the spice is not something to fool around with. “I don’t think people understand that, hey, a small amount is great for baking or sprinkling on your hot chocolate, but as we’ve seen in these ‘cinnamon challenge’ videos, it’s very irritating,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. When something like this is ingested, he explains, the body’s protective cough reflex kicks in — but sometimes an initial breath in can let some of the spice into the lungs, causing a spasm in the airways. “It can spasm to the point of closing up,” Spiller says, as happened with the asphyxiation of the young boy. “We don’t want people to take this lightly.” Those with asthma or allergies, he adds, can be particularly susceptible.
According to a New York Times article on the dangerous phenomenon, the spice is harmless and potentially healthy in small amounts, but “can be caustic to the airways when inhaled, causing inflammation and scarring of the lungs.” The story quotes Dr. Steven Lipshultz, author of the AAPCC report and professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who noted that cases of breathing problems and skin rashes have been reported in workers who manufacture cinnamon from tree bark, and that the problem is that cinnamon powder contains an inert substance called cellulose, which can lodge in the lungs.
“The cellulose doesn’t break down,” Lipshultz said. “So when it gets into the lungs it sits there long term, and if it’s coated with this caustic cinnamon oil, that leads to chronic inflammation and eventually scarring of the lungs, something we call pulmonary fibrosis. Getting scarring in the lungs is equivalent to getting emphysema.”
Radar, the bereaved mom of the 4-year-old boy, put the warning more simply: “Cinnamon can kill,” she said. “All these kids, they don’t think about the fact it can hurt them.”