While pepper spray contains the same ingredient used to soothe sore muscles, the concentration used in crowd control or personal safety situations is many, many times higher and will feel painful and not at all soothing to your body. Here’s what it is, what it feels like, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you’re sprayed with pepper spray.
What is pepper spray?
Pepper spray is a chemical irritant that contains the same agent that provides “heat” in chili peppers: oleoresin capsicum, says Robert Glatter, M.D., Men’s Health Advisor and emergency physician at Lenox Hill hospital.
What do you feel when you’re sprayed with pepper spray?
Since it’s an irritant, it will cause burning in your eyes and throat, which leads to watery eyes, a cough, and even gagging.
How much does it hurt? In one study of people voluntarily getting sprayed with pepper spray as part of police or military training found that people rated their eye discomfort between a 9.6 and 9.7 out of 10, but that decreased to between 8.7 and 7.2 in 10 minutes. Pain and irritation lasted 15 minutes or more. Most experts say that you’ll continue to feel the burn for a lot longer than that.
These are the most common effects of pepper spray, although Dr. Glatter also notes that there can be more serious effects—people with asthma or other respiratory issues are especially vulnerable. “People with a significant or prolonged exposure have died after contact with pepper spray,” he has explained to Men’s Health (see our guide to protesting safely). Although the physician authors of Responding to Terrorism write that deaths are rare, usually occurring with severe and prolonged exposure in enclosed spaces.
How can you protect yourself?
You’re already wearing a mask to protect yourself and others from the novel coronavirus, and that may be helpful. “Wearing a face mask may help reduce oral exposure (mouth, tongue and lips), but obviously won’t do anything to protect your eyes if you are exposed to pepper spray,” says Dr. Glatter.
“The fine mist from pepper spray poses a risk to unprotected eyes,” says Dr. Glatter, who recommends taking along a pair of goggles—like ski or swim goggles—with a tight seal. “Standard eyeglasses or sunglasses are not enough to ensure adequate eye protection in this scenario,” he says. Just be sure the goggles don’t make you feel more disoriented than you already will be if you’re coughing and feeling burning sensations.
What should you do if you are sprayed?
“The most important thing to remember is not to rub your eyes if you get sprayed. This will spread the compound deeper into your eye,” Dr. Glatter has explained to Men’s Health.
Use clean hands to carefully remove contact lenses if you wear them. Blink so you help your tears wash away the oily pepper spray.
“Applying baby shampoo to the affected eye is the most effective for neutralizing and removing the oil resin contained in pepper spray,” he says. Then irrigate your eyes. Ideally, use sterile saline, but it’s unlikely that you’ll have that with you, so use water. “Often several liters is necessary to adequately irrigate the eye after exposure. A 20-ounce bottle of water poured over your eye is just not enough,” he adds.
If you get pepper spray in your mouth, rinse that with huge amounts of water, too. “Sucking on ice chips may also help to alleviate burning on your lips, tongue, gums and roof of your mouth,” Dr. Glatter says. “While rinsing with milk may reduce pain in your mouth, it will not remove the oils present that are causing the pain.”
Wash yourself as soon as you are able, and wash your clothes, too (separately from other clothes). Over one to two hours, the pain should gradually dissipate. Seek medical attention if you think the spray has caused burns to your eyes or skin, or if you’re having trouble breathing.
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