Posted on January 26th, 2013
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If you’ve ever bitten into a hot chili pepper that was just a little too spicy for you to handle, then you might know how difficult it is to get the burning sensation in your mouth to go away. The immediate pain can be unbearable, and no matter how much water you drink, it just doesn’t seem stop.
Now, imagine if you felt that same burning sensation all over your face and in your eyes, nose, and throat. It would be excruciating. This is the basis behind a solution known as pepper spray. Since 1973 pepper spray has been used by law enforcement as a way to subdue violent, aggressive or uncooperative subjects. Many people also use it as a personal self-defense tool to fight off attackers.
Pepper spray is made from an extract of chili peppers and usually comes in an aerosol canister so you can spray it quickly and easily. Since it’s portable and easy to use, pepper spray is a popular option for both law enforcement and personal use. When sprayed into the face of an attacker, it’s extremely irritating to the skin, eyes, mouth, throat and lungs. Its effect is immediate and powerful, and it can distract a person long enough for you to escape an assailant, or for a police officer to take control of a subject.
Another reason pepper spray is so widely used is that, most of the time, exposure has no lasting effects. The immediate impact may be intense, but after a few hours, the effects should wear off completely. This makes it a generally safer option than using guns, chemical deterrents or Tasers, which in some cases can lead to permanent health problems or even death.
What Pepper Spray Is and How It’s Used
The active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum (OC), a natural oil found in many types of hot peppers, including cayenne peppers and other chili peppers. OC contains a compound called capsaicin, which is what’s responsible for the spicy sensation when you eat a hot pepper. It’s odorless, colorless, and even flavorless, but just one milligram (about 0.00003 ounces) of pure capsaicin is enough to cause blisters to form on your skin.
Pepper spray is usually dispensed from an aerosol canister. To make it easier to spray, OC oil is mixed with a water-based or oil-based solution. It’s also mixed with a propellant, a solution that allows it to shoot outward, and then the entire solution is pressurized inside the canister. Using an aerosol canister allows you to spray farther — and in many cases wider — than other types of spray containers.
The Effects of Pepper Spray
When you hold a pepper in your hand, it probably doesn’t feel any hotter than if you were holding an apple or a plum. But when the pepper comes into contact with your lips or your tongue, you can definitely feel the heat. This is because the capsaicin in the pepper reacts with the nerve endings in your body’s mucous membranes that are sensitive to heat and cold. This explains why biting into a spicy pepper can actually feel like your mouth is burning.
Because capsaicin is the same component that makes peppers seem hot, its potency is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU) — a heat scale used to rate the heat level of peppers. The overall heat level is based on the amount of capsaicin present. Typical pepper spray is rated between about 500,000 and 5,000,000 SHU. By comparison, a jalapeño pepper is only around 8,000 SHU, and a habanero is close to 350,000 SHU.
The severity of the effects of pepper spray varies depending upon the amount of pepper spray that’s used, the strength of the spray and where it’s sprayed. If sprayed directly into a person’s face, the effects may be more intense or long-lasting. When pepper spray is sprayed at an attacker, the burning sensation they would feel is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you were sprayed in the face with pepper spray, you would immediately feel a burning sensation in your eyes, nose and mouth, and possibly even your throat and on your skin. This burning feeling, if left untreated, can last anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes. Your eyes would become irritated and probably swell shut, causing temporary blindness that can last from 15 to 30 minutes. You might also begin coughing and find it difficult to breathe as your throat swells — this can last from 3 to 15 minutes.
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sources: How Stuff Works