The influence of social media is broad, and its uses are more than just for entertainment. Pew Research Center (Pew) data shows that in 2021, 72% of all adult Americans used some form of social media. People sometimes participate in challenges and pranks that are trending on social media1. Some of the most popular include the ALS ice bucket challenge, Harlem Shake, and Planking.2,3,4 These trends and other trends range from harmless to downright dangerous. Some challenges have even caused death.5,6 Poison centers receive calls from people when these challenges go wrong. Below are some examples of challenges trending on social media and why they can be dangerous.
The Plan B Pregnancy Test Challenge
This challenge calls for breaking open a basic over-the-counter pregnancy test and swallowing the tablet inside the test believing that it is a Plan B® drug.7 The hope is that they purchased a combination product—both a test and an emergency contraceptive sold together. One of the reasons a combination product is not sold is because it would not work. Plan B® needs to be taken soon after sex to prevent pregnancy, and a pregnancy test cannot detect a pregnancy until weeks later when it is too late to take Plan B®.
The tablet found in a pregnancy test is put there to absorb moisture and keep the contents dry. These moisture-absorbing items come in a variety of sizes and forms such as tablets, packets, and canisters and are used in packaging of vitamins, medicine, electronics, shoes, and many other products. Silica gel is the most common chemical used for this purpose and in most cases is not harmful. However, if swallowed it can be a choking hazard.
The Nutmeg Challenge
This challenge is when a person swallows the spice nutmeg in an attempt to get high. Often it’s people who are incarcerated or young adults that use nutmeg when they can’t get other preferred drugs.8 Nutmeg, and a variety of other spices and herbs, contains a naturally occurring chemical called myristicin. When taken in larger amounts it can cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, fast heart rate, agitation, and hallucinations. Other severe effects such as seizures and death can occur. The amount of myristicin in nutmeg varies between products, making it is easy for a person to take too much. Some people have even been hospitalized from this trend.
The Salt Challenges
There are many social media challenges trending connected to salt. They include hiding a spoonful of salt in food to prank someone into eating it, swallowing salt before working out, or pouring large amounts of salt into their mouth as punishment after losing a bet.9
Table salt consists of two elements put together, sodium and chloride. Both of these are needed for the body to function properly, but too much can be dangerous. Swallowing large amounts of salt can quickly cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. As salt is absorbed more fully in the body, sleepiness, brain swelling, and seizures can occur. Since we use salt in food every day, many people do not realize how dangerous it can be. As little as a tablespoon in children and teens can be very harmful.
The Tide Pod Challenge
The Tide Pod challenge is when a person eats a laundry detergent packet as part of a dare.10 Laundry packets contain detergents and chemicals that are highly concentrated. This makes the detergent very irritating in small amounts. When eaten, they can cause nausea and vomiting. Also, when a packet “pops” in a person’s mouth, they can accidentally inhale some of the detergent into their lungs which can affect their ability to breathe normally. Eating laundry packets has caused hospitalizations and deaths.
The Benadryl Challenge
This challenge occurs when a person takes more than normal amounts of Benadryl (diphenhydramine) in order to hallucinate.11 Diphenhydramine helps with symptoms of allergies but if too much is taken, it has side effects such as hallucinations, high blood pressure, high body temperature, agitation, and seizures. Several teenagers have needed hospitalization, and at least one death has occurred from this challenge.
The Cinnamon Challenge
This challenge encourages people to eat a spoonful of ground cinnamon without drinking any water. This results in coughing, choking, and irritation of the mouth, nose, and throat. Some people find it entertaining to watch. However, serious effects can happen when a person coughs and chokes on the powdered cinnamon and then accidentally inhales it into their lungs.12 Cinnamon can irritate the lungs and even cause pneumonia. Some people engaging in this challenge have required hospitalization to help them breathe.
There are many challenges trending on social media. Some have been harmful or fatal to those who try them. To get free, expert, and confidential help call 1-800-222-1222. Trusted pharmacists, nurses and doctors will quickly help you in a poison emergency and can answer your questions 24/7.
- Social Media Fact Sheet. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/. Published April 7, 2021. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- The Telegraph. How the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Started. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqobbcK0R-o. Published August 20, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- GoodClipsDaily. The Harlem Shakes [BEST ONES!]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8f7wj_RcqYk. Published February 11, 2013. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- Planking (fad). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planking_(fad). Published September 10, 2022. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- Vargas S. 12-year-old Oklahoma boy found dead after participating in TikTok ‘blackout challenge,’ report says. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/07/22/oklahoma-12-year-old-tiktok-blackout-challenge-social-media/8065926002/. Published July 23, 2021. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- Forster V. Teen Dies After Doing TikTok ‘Benadryl Challenge’ As Doctors Warn of Dangers. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2020/09/02/teen-dies-after-doing--tiktok-benadryl-challengeas-doctors-warn-of-dangers/?sh=2477e08ef0db. Published September 2, 2020. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- Brown M. PSA: That is NOT a Plan B Pill Inside Your Pregnancy Test. Parents®. https://www.parents.com/parenting/relationships/postpartum-birth-control/psa-that-is-not-a-plan-b-pill-inside-your-pregnancy-test/. Published January 11, 2022. Accessed December 11, 2022.
- Abernethy MK, Becker LB. Acute nutmeg intoxication. Am J Emerg Med. 1992;10(5):429-430. doi: 10.1016/0735-6757(92)90069-a.
- Best S. Dangerous TikTok ‘Salt Challenge’ sees teens pouring salt directly into their mouths. Mirror. https://www.mirror.co.uk/tech/dangerous-tiktok-salt-challenge-sees-21596673. Published February 28, 2020. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- Safety Experts Warn About So-Called ‘Tide Pod Challenge’ On Social Media. CBS News New York. https://www.cbsnews.com/newyork/news/tide-pod-challenge/. Published January 12, 2018. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- Zilber A. PICTURED: Oklahoma girl, 15, who died from an overdose after doing viral ‘Benadryl challenge’ on TikTok – in which teens take huge amounts of allergy drug to hallucinate. Daily Mail. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8695443/PICTURED-Oklahoma-girl-15-overdosed-doing-viral-Benadryl-challenge-TikTok.html. Published September 4, 2020. Accessed December 12, 2022.
- “Cinnamon challenge” dangerous to lungs, new report warns. CBS News New York. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/cinnamon-challenge-dangerous-to-lungs-new-report-warns/. Published April 22, 2013. Accessed December 12, 2022.
Author: Sawyer J. Wylie, PharmD, Specialist in Poison Information, Utah Poison Control Center