Teen dares using holiday spices can easily turn fatal

News Archive December 12, 2013

Teen dares using holiday spices can easily turn fatal

Last year hospitals reported 222 cases of the Cinnamon Challenge gone awry

MAYWOOD, Ill - Cinnamon, nutmeg and marshmallows are usually just seen by adults as ingredients for holiday treats. But in the eyes of many teens who accept a common dare, these spices can be the recipe for death.

“The envelope is always being pushed to create something new that will get attention, potentially create a druglike effect and can pass under the radar of law enforcers,” said Christina Hantsch, MD, toxicologist, Department of Emergency Medicine at Loyola University Health System.

The Cinnamon Challenge

Last year the number of calls to U.S. poison centers about cinnamon abuse by teens 13-19 totaled 222, according to the National Poison Data System. This year, from Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, there were 50 cases.

In the Cinnamon Challenge kids try to swallow 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon without water. The loose, dry cinnamon triggers a violent coughing attack. The cinnamon produces a burning sensation in the throat and lungs that prompts breathing problems.  Hundreds of Internet videos and postings have made it a social media sensation.

Loyola’s Emergency Medicine specialists have seen firsthand the results of these dares.

“A group of 9-year-olds was trying to do the Cinnamon Challenge and got caught,” said Hantsch, who is a former medical director of Illinois Poison Control. “One girl had seen the videos on the Internet and wanted to try it with her friends."

Hantsch is concerned that younger children are copying older teens.

“They have easy access to ingredients like cinnamon and marshmallows and think it is cool to do what their older peers are doing,” Hantsch said.

The Chubby Bunny Marshmallow Dare

Chubby Bunny is another popular game that has an evergreen presence on YouTube and in the ER.  “You stuff as many marshmallows in your mouth as possible and then try to say the words ‘Chubby Bunny’,” Hantsch said. “Two children have actually choked to death attempting this game, so it is not to be taken lightly."

Nutmeg Produces a High

Ground nutmeg has been snorted, smoked and eaten in large quantities to produce a marijuanalike high, Loyola experts said.

“Nutmeg contains myristicin, which is a hallucinogenic like LSD,” the toxicologist said. Other common household products that are being abused are hand sanitizer, aerosol whipped cream, aerosol cooking spray, ink markers and glue.

Synthetic Marijuana

“There actually is a synthetic marijuana called Spice, or K2, that is very popular right now because it cannot be detected in standard drug tests,” Hantsch said. “Spice is popular right now because it is marketed as a legal high - which it is not - but it is dangerous because its effects are more adverse than cannabis."

According to the 2012 Monitoring the Future survey of youth drug-use trends, 1 in 9 U.S. 12th graders reported using synthetic cannabinoids in the past year.  This rate, unchanged from 2011, puts synthetic cannabinoids as the second most frequently used illegal drug among high school seniors after marijuana. Respiratory, cardiac and nerve damage have all been documented in relation to substance abuse by users.

“Seemingly silly games can have sinister effects and the holidays are the worst time for this to happen,” Hantsch said. “Kids have more free time, greater access to the Internet and more opportunities to get together during vacations. And at Christmas, the kitchen pantry is loaded for holiday baking. Adults are wise to keep an eye on their children to make sure they are using the ingredients for their proper use."

The Loyola Department of Emergency Medicine is classified as a Level 1 Trauma Center, providing the highest level of surgical care to trauma patients. The department also has been recognized by groups such as The Joint Commission, the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems, the American College of Surgeons (one of only two-ACS-verified trauma centers in Illinois)and the Illinois Department of Public Health for Trauma, Burns, Pediatric and Emergency departments.

Loyola University Health System (LUHS) is a member of Trinity Health. Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, LUHS is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and more than 30 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus is a 559-licensed-bed hospital that houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola's Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the 255-licensed-bed community hospital, the Professional Office Building housing 150 private practice clinics, the Adult Day Care, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park.
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