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Physical Effects of Pepper Spray & Can Pepper Spray be Harmful?

What is Pepper Spray?

Pepper spray is an aerosol spray consisting of inflammatory compounds called capsaicin. On coming in contact with a person’s eyes it leads to burning, pain, and tears. It stimulates the eyes and leads to tears production.

The main component of pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, oil that is obtained for genus Capsicum that includes chili peppers. The active ingredient capsaicin present in pepper spray is the same ingredient that adds heat to chili peppers. These are contained in much higher concentrations in pepper spray. The concentration of pepper spray in law enforcement agents use is 5-10%. Higher the concentration longer the effects last.(1)

Capsicum oil is also the base of bear spray, which is an aerosol designed to protect humans from bears. Pepper spray can be brought by the civilians for self-defense. Its sale is restricted in some U.S. states.

Physical Effects of Pepper Spray

Physical Effects of Pepper Spray

Pepper spray on coming in contact with a person’s eyes causes immediate eye closure along with acute pain and temporary blindness. Some people describe the discomfort as a bubbling or boiling sensation.

Pepper spray can lead to the following effects:

10% of cases in a study reported scratches to the eyeball and corneal abrasion.(1) These scratches result when the person rubs his eyes and the effect is temporary.

Most of the symptoms of pepper spray are self-resolving and resolved within 30 minutes and do not require any medical treatment.(2) Cough and shortness of breath may persist in some people, especially those with lung disorders. The breathing effects may be more severe in those with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. In rare cases, pepper spray may cause cyanosis, a bluish discoloration that occurs due to a lack of blood flow and oxygen.

Complications Linked with Pepper Spray

Serious exposure to pepper spray can cause severe injuries to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. According to the Police Policy Studies Council, a person should be brought to the hospital if their symptoms persist for longer than 45 minutes.(1)

If someone shows signs of emergency such as loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing, or chest pain, it is recommended to call the emergency service.

Treatment for Pepper Spray Exposure

There is no treatment for pepper spray exposure, but the symptoms can be reduced with the following tips:

  • Move away from the area where there is pepper spray and move to fresh air
  • Flush the affected area with lots of water to wash away the contaminants
  • Blink eye rapidly
  • Avoid touching the affected area
  • Remove the clothing that has come in contact with the affected area
  • Avoid using soap and detergents around the eyes as it would act as an irritant

Pepper spray can be removed with baby shampoo, milk, antacid, and lidocaine. A study was done in 2008, it compared strategies and found nothing more effective than water.(3) Also, one trial done in 2018 reported no difference in using baby shampoo or water alone in relieving the effects of tear gas and pepper spray.(4) The use of wipes and saline is also known to relieve the symptoms after spray exposure.

A saline solution called diphoterine is known to be effective against various chemicals coming in contact with the eyes or skin.(4) However, its effectiveness in removing the pepper spray is not much shown.

If the symptoms of pepper spray do not resolve within 10-30 minutes, medical care should be looked for.

Can Pepper Spray be Harmful?

Pepper spray is a non-lethal weapon, a weapon that cannot kill anyone. Death although rare but has been reported with the use of pepper spray. Department of Justice investigated 63 death and reported death of 2 people was due to pepper spray.(3)

In the above report, the cause of death was preexisting asthma to be the contributing factor. However, the same report concluded that pepper spray did not pose any significant risk for those with respiratory compromise even with positional restraint.

Pepper spray is a legally allowed chemical and is used by law enforcement and civilians for defense. It can be dangerous and is controversial if used against civilian protestors.

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:April 28, 2022

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