Pepper spray: Effects, treatment, and complications

Pepper spray is commonly used by law enforcement and corrections agencies across the United States. It is an aerosol spray that assists in subduing and arresting people whose behavior is violent or uncooperative.

Individuals may also use it to defend themselves against attacks by other people or animals.

Its use is sometimes controversial and has led to a number of deaths in custody after a policeman has applied the spray to apprehend suspects.

However, a 2003 study of North Carolina jurisdictions from the National Institute of Justice showed that the number of police officers injured on duty decreased after the introduction of pepper spray.

This article examines what is in pepper spray, whether it is dangerous, and how to treat exposure to pepper spray.

What is it?

pepper spray
Pepper spray uses a high concentration of the chemical that adds spicy flavor to peppers to irritate the eyes.

Pepper spray is a lachrymatory agent, meaning that it stimulates the eyes to produce tears.

An oil known as oleoresin capsicum is the main component in pepper spray.

Capsaicin is an inflammatory agent in the oil. This is the same chemical that adds the characteristic heat to chilli peppers. However, capsaicin is present in pepper spray at a much higher concentration.

The heat of a bell pepper measures 0 on the Scoville Heat Units scale, which is used to measure the “heat” of peppers. A jalapeño pepper scores 2,500 to 5,000 on the same scale.

The heat of pepper spray, however, ranges from 2 million units in commercial pepper sprays, marketed for use in self-defense, to 5.3 million Scoville units for police-issue spray.

This same ingredient also forms the basis of bear spray, which reduces attacks during human encounters with bears.

However, the concentration of capsaicin in bear spray is only 1 to 2 percent. Pepper sprays used in law enforcement reportedly have a capsaicin content of between 10 and 30 percent.

As a result, its deployment has often been controversial, particularly when civilian protestors experience pepper spray use, such as during the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011.

Authorities classify pepper spray as a riot-control agent. Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention bans its use in war.

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Physical effects

When a person comes into contact with pepper spray, their eyes will close immediately.

They will experience a “bubbling” or “boiling” sensation, followed by temporary blindness and eye pain. The effects last from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how strong the spray solution is.

Pepper spray can also cause:

burning in the throat

wheezing

dry cough

shortness of breath

gagging

gasping

the inability to breathe or speak

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