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How Dangerous Is Pepper Spray?

By Essilor News

Your eyes are watering, your nose tingles, and your mouth feels like it's on fire - this is what it feels like after biting into a spicy, hot chili pepper. Now think about that agony and imagine if the burning sensation was felt all over your face from the inside of your eyes to the back of your throat. This is what it feels like when you come in contact with pepper spray.

In fact, the active ingredient in pepper spray, oleoresin capsicum (OC), is a natural oil found in many types of hot peppers. OC is an inflammatory agent that makes the eyes and mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract swell up causing pain and even temporary blindness. The compound in OC is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU) - a heat scale also used to rate the heat level of peppers. To give you an idea of just how hot pepper spray can be, consider the fact that while a jalapeno pepper is around 8,000 SHU and a habanero is close to 350,000 SHU, typical pepper spray is rated between 500,000 and 5,000,000 SHU.

How Dangerous is Pepper Spray?
In most cases, the immediate effects of being sprayed in the face with pepper spray include a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat but can also cause difficulty breathing and temporary blindness when the eyes swell shut. The effects can last up to an hour if left untreated, though some people say it takes days for them to feel better.

As for the dangers, the majority of studies state that OC pepper spray is completely non-toxic and safe. According to the Journal of Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, eye exposure to OC is not harmful, and there is no evidence saying pepper spray causes long-term vision problems. However, repeated exposure can trigger changes in corneal sensitivity.

Some studies show that people with other issues, such as an allergy to the ingredients in pepper spray, asthma, or a pre-existing heart condition, may experience a more severe reaction.

How to Treat the Effects of Pepper Spray
Oleoresin capsicum oil is made up of nonpolar molecules, much like grease; therefore, drinking or splashing water, which is made of polar molecules, will not remove the oil. Polar molecules only bond with other polar molecules, and nonpolar molecules only bond with other nonpolar molecules. But there is hope - here are a few ways you can help relieve the burn from pepper spray:

  • Blink your eyes rapidly - This will cause your eyes to tear up and may help flush out some of the pepper spray.
  • Wash your skin with soap - Use a cleaner such as hand soap, shampoo, or even dish soap, and then rinse with water. Soap will help break up and remove the oil.
  • Try a "no tears" baby shampoo - Use the tear-free shampoo to help rinse the pepper spray from the eye area. The shampoo will help remove the oil, and it is sensitive enough not to cause more irritation to the eyes.
  • Apply a towel soaked in milk to your eyes - Whole milk is an effective pain reliever for pepper spray because the fat stops the compounds in the spray from engaging the nerve endings in your body. Leave the milk-soaked towel on each eye for a few minutes or as long as it takes to bring relief. Throw the towel away after use.
  • Use an ice pack - Holding an ice pack over your eyes can also help relieve the burn.

If you do come in contact with pepper spray and you are wearing contact lenses, try to remove them immediately and dispose of them. You might need someone to help you if your hands have pepper spray on them. If you're concerned about your vision after being sprayed, contact your eye doctor.