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Pepper Spray: What Is It?

I have recently been asked a lot of questions about pepper spray, as protests rise across the nation.

What makes pepper spray so uncomfortable when in contact with the eyes and skin, is its active ingredient, Oleoresin Capsicum. This oil is found in many hot peppers, yet most pepper sprays are synthetic as opposed to extracts from natural hot peppers. Pepper spray is a lachrymatory agent, meaning it irritates the eyes and causes profuse tearing. Because it’s an oil, touching it makes it spread easily. It can cause temporary blindness, because it hurts if you try to open your eyes after you have been sprayed. But because pepper spray is just an irritant, it causes more discomfort than actual damage. However, rubbing your eyes too much due to the pain can potentially cause abrasion around the delicate skin of your eyes or even on the cornea of the eye.

Additionally, if you are sprayed with capsicum spray, you may also experience difficulty breathing if the spray is inhaled, as well as a runny nose and a cough. Even though pepper spray causes discomfort, it usually only causes transient irritation. That is why it is considered non-lethal, but in rare cases, and for those with severe asthma, it can be deadly. Additionally, it can be potentially more dangerous for anyone who has had COVID-19 and may have residual lung damage.

Once in contact with the spray, symptoms may last 45 minutes, with diminished effects lasting longer. However there are varying degrees of symptoms and injuries with pepper spray, due to products of differing strengths. Usually, a single exposure is harmless, but repeated exposures can have lasting effects. One of them being the sensitivity of the cornea. Luckily, there is no evidence of long-term visual problems.

If ever in contact with pepper spray, the first thing you must do is move away from the source and look for any allergic or respiratory reactions. If possible, remove the clothing that was sprayed and try to get to an area with fresh air. Because the oil in pepper spray is not easily irrigated, it is important to wash around your eyes with water and soap (such as diluted baby shampoo). Then use a saline-solution to irrigate inside your eyes, to help dilute it and flush out the chemical. If you are wearing contacts, it is imperative that you take them out as soon as possible.

There is a big misconception about pouring milk into your eyes after coming in contact with pepper spray. While it may feel soothing on your skin around your eyes because it breakdowns the some of the capsaicin oil, you should not get the milk into your eyes. It is not sterile and can potentially cause infection from possible bacterial contamination in the milk. Studies have shown that milk is not any better than plain water.*

Therefore, as you continue to exercise your first amendment right to peacefully assemble and protest consider carrying or wearing a mask and goggles for your protection, just in case.


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© Dr. Leigh Vinocur, 2022.