Short and Long-Term Effects of Pepper Spray

physical effects of pepper spray on humans

Pepper spray is a widely-used means of self protection because it can quickly incapacitate an assailant, allowing the user to escape a threatening situation. Pepper spray is made from a chile pepper extract that contains capsaicin, a substance that causes inflammation to the mucous membranes, temporary blindness and extreme respiratory distress. It is the same bodily response as the burning sensation that occurs when eating spicy food that contains hot chiles. The effects of pepper spray are immediate, however there are generally no long-term effects. The spray can be safely used by the general public as well as police, military, and other security officials.

Mechanisms Behind Pepper Spray

When deployed at an attacker, the red pepper extract is driven into the eyes, throat and lungs. The inflammatory chemical penetrates the capillaries, causing temporary pain. Rubbing the skin makes the effects worse, inciting even more of a burning sensation as touching the skin opens the capillaries enabling the pepper spray to spread. The body’s defense mechanisms, especially the skin and tear ducts, launch into high gear to remove the chemical. The result is temporary blindness and incapacitation.

The heat level of chile peppers is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU) which rates the hotness of the capsiacin (CRC) contained in the spray. The best measure of the strength of pepper spray is the amount of capsiacin, which should be between 1-2 percent for maximum effectiveness. However, it is important to remember that the burning effects of pepper spray depend on the amount of material that reaches an assailant’s eyes and facial skin. Pepper spray is easy to use and doesn’t require bodily strength to operate, but it is beneficial to receive training for safe and proper use.

Temporary and Long-Term Effects of Pepper Spray

washing off after being pepper sprayedThe burning sensation from pepper spray can be quite intense, lasting up to an hour if the spray is not removed. Short-term blindness can last 15 to 30 minutes. Other symptoms include swelling of the throat and coughing. A feeling of panic can occur if there is labored breathing.

Unlike exposure to tear gas, which can cause glaucoma and cataracts when exposure is prolonged, the symptoms of pepper spray are not permanent. Pepper spray is widely used by police and other security officials because the effects of the capsaicin doesn’t cause long-lasting health problems. Because the active ingredient in pepper spray comes from the same type of chile peppers you’d buy in a grocery store, the spray is biodegradable and doesn’t harm clothing. The spray can be cleaned off using home remedies such as bathing the affected area with milk, and then rinsing the skin with a solution of baby shampoo or detergent and water. After 4 to 6 hours, most people who’ve come into contact with the spray will no longer feel the effects.

Individuals who are allergic to components of the pepper spray, or have asthma or heart disease may experience more severe effects. The pepper spray has been linked to fatalities—not as a singular cause, but as a contributing factor. This has made the use of pepper spray controversial. While legal in the United States, its possession and use is banned in some countries, such as Great Britain and Canada.