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How Dangerous is Pepper Spray?

The Bottom Line

Lacrimators are chemicals that cause tear production and are typically used for personal protection and crowd control. These chemicals cause intense irritation to the eyes, skin, and lungs and can temporarily incapacitate an individual. The most common lacrimator is pepper spray. Its effects are generally mild and resolve fairly quickly. More severe effects require medical evaluation.

The Full Story

A lacrimator is a substance that causes tear production. The term also refers to a group of nonlethal chemicals used to temporarily disable without killing by causing intense irritation of the eyes, skin, and lungs.

Lacrimators (tear gases) have a long history of use. Tear gases used during World War I included chlorine and mustard gas, which caused tissue injury and death. These and other chemical warfare agents were banned for use in war by the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

More modern times saw the development of several different chemical lacrimators used by law enforcement for crowd control as well as used by individuals for personal protection. The most well-known are pepper spray and Mace. Pepper spray contains capsaicin. Mace contains the chemical chloroacetophenone and should not be confused with the spice mace, which comes from the same plant as nutmeg. Mace products have generally been replaced by pepper spray in the US, so this article will focus on pepper spray.

Pepper spray is typically dispersed into the air as an aerosol or small particles in a liquid spray. Pepper spray products come in various sizes including hand-held containers intended to be sprayed at a single person or animal (e.g., bear spray) as well as canisters that can be thrown or shot into an area, such as those used by law enforcement.

Capsaicin, the main ingredient in pepper spray, is found in edible pepper plants such as jalapeños and green chile. If you have cut up a jalapeño and then touched your nose or eye, you are very familiar with the irritating properties of capsaicin! It is also used in topical formulations to treat minor pain.

Pepper spray causes irritation of the eyes, skin, and mucus membranes. Eye exposures can result in pain, redness, watery eyes, difficulty opening the eyes, and sensitivity to light. Skin exposures can cause pain, redness, swelling, and itching. Inhalation exposures can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, nasal and throat irritation, and runny nose. These effects are usually mild and temporary, lasting minutes to hours. However, more severe injury is possible including corneal abrasions, wheezing, and skin blisters. People with lung conditions, such as asthma or COPD, can have more severe breathing effects when pepper spray is inhaled.

Poison Control receives many calls about unintentional exposures to pepper spray. Curious children have sprayed themselves or others, teenagers have misused these products (often in a school), and confused adults have mistaken the products for breath spray. Use by law enforcement for crowd control can result in many people exposed to pepper spray at the same time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published recommendations for how to protect yourself and what to do if exposed to tear gas. These include leaving the area where the tear gas was released and getting to fresh air. Emergency coordinators might advise people to evacuate an area or "shelter in place" inside a building to avoid being exposed to the chemical. If the spray was used indoors, open doors and windows to air out the area right away. If exposed, you should remove your clothing and rapidly wash your entire body with large amounts of soap and water. Clothing that would usually be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead. Eyes should be irrigated for 10-15 minutes with room-temperature water. Contact lenses should be removed and discarded. Eye glasses should be removed and washed with soap and water. Jewelry should be removed and washed with soap and water or discarded. Contaminated clothing should be placed inside a plastic bag. Avoid touching contaminated clothing by using rubber gloves, tongs, or sticks to place the clothing in the bag. The bag should be sealed and placed inside another plastic bag. The CDC recommends that you then contact your local health department for instructions on the appropriate disposal of the bagged clothing in your area.

Nasal irritation and runny nose should improve after nasal irrigation with a saline solution. Throat irritation should improve after drinking cool fluids. A cough or minor respiratory irritation can improve with a steam treatment, such as a steamy shower. Anyone with serious effects such as wheezing, difficulty breathing, chest pain, or persistent eye pain should seek immediate medical evaluation.

If you suspect someone has been exposed to pepper spray or tear gas, have them get fresh air immediately, start decontamination procedures, and then check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for further guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.

Karen D. Dominguez, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information

For More Information

Facts about riot control agents interim document [internet]. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018 Apr 4 [cited 2020 25 Feb].

Feigenbaum A. 100 years of tear gas: a chemical weapon drifts off the battlefield and into the streets [Internet]. Boston: The Atlantic. 2014 Aug 16 [cited 2020 25 Feb].


References

Brown L, Takeuchi D, Challoner K. Corneal abrasions associated with pepper spray exposure. Am J Emerg Med. 2000 May;18(3):271-2.

Kearney T, Hiatt P, Birdsall E, Smollin C. Pepper spray injury severity: ten-year case experience of a poison control system. Prehosp Emerg Care. 2014 (Jul-Sep);18(3):381-6.

Stopyra JP, Winslow JE 3rd, Johnson JC 3rd, Hill KD, Bozeman WP. Baby shampoo to relieve the discomfort of tear gas and pepper spray exposure: a randomized controlled trial. West J Emerg Med. 2018 Mar;19(2):294-300.

Suchard JR. Chemical weapons. In: Nelson LS, Howland MA, Lewin NA, Smith SW, Goldfrank LR, Hoffman RS, editors. Goldfrank's toxicologic emergencies. 11th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education; 2019.

Poisoned?

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Prevention Tips

  • Lacrimators should be used as directed by the manufacturer.
  • Keep lacrimators out of the sight and reach of children.
  • If a lacrimator unintentionally gets on your hands, avoid touching your face and wash your hands thoroughly.
  • If in an area where a lacrimator has been used, leave the area immediately and get to fresh air.
  • Avoid direct contact with a pet (or any animal) that has been sprayed.

This Really Happened

Case 1. An 8-year-old boy unintentionally sprayed himself in the face with pepper spray. He was wearing glasses at the time, so a minimal amount got into his eyes. His skin was red and irritated but felt better after washing with soap and water. Although he was not complaining of eye irritation, instructions for irrigating his eyes were provided should it become necessary. During a follow-up call, the boy's mother said the boy's eyes were a little pink but not painful, his skin was red but without blisters, and his voice was a little hoarse. These effects were expected to resolve.

Case 2. A woman bought a can of pepper spray and wanted to try it out, so she sprayed it into the sink in her bathroom. She immediately developed throat irritation, coughing, and a burning sensation in her lungs. She was advised to get fresh air, drink water, and take a steamy shower. A follow-up call was placed, and she was feeling better.