Pepper Spray Treatment and Antidotes

Pepper spray is one of the most portable, affordable, discreet and efficacious non-lethal self defense weapons.  Its attributes have made it a popular choice for individuals from all walks of life; its relative ease of use makes it possible for almost anyone to utilize it in threatening situations, to defend themselves when other options are insufficient.

It should always be used for self defense – in circumstances where other forms of resistance against threat do not suffice.  Many pepper spray delivery systems feature locking mechanisms – very much akin to the “safety” found on firearms – to prevent accidental discharge of the inflammatory compounds.  However, under certain conditions – a panicked or confused state, a windy day that could blow the dispersed spray back toward the operator, or a simple accident, whether resulting in the operator or a nearby individual being sprayed – an unintended victim may get “hit” by the burning substance found in pepper spray, causing pain, irritation and temporary immobility.

These are, of course, the intended results of the spray; it is designed to immobilize an attacker by irritating the mucus membranes and capillaries.  When the spray contacts the eyes – and the entry points to the respiratory system (the nose and mouth) – the eyes, by their own will, shed tears and close tightly.  Vision is nigh on impossible.  A violent, painful cough may be triggered; the skin on the face will burn with a powerful, inflamed sensation.  Breathing may be difficult, and coordination can suffer – temporarily.  Pepper spray is not designed or intended to inflict any sort of permanent damage; however, the immediate effects are extremely unpleasant.  Any individual, no matter how careful, no matter how sure of themselves they are, needs to understand the available antidotes to an accidental discharge of it.

First – What Not To Do

Anyone who has had the misfortune of consuming a hotter pepper than was tolerable knows that drinking water to quell the burning sensation is, generally, of little use.  The same, somewhat perplexing fact is applicable to the topical irritation caused by oc spray.  Unless a continuous application of cool water, over the entire duration of the pepper spray's worst effects (30 minutes or longer) is made, the relief found may be temporary – and can even worsen the perceived inflammation.

When an irritating agent contacts the skin,  the first reaction is to scratch or rub the area, in order to rid it of the offending substance.  However – do not rub the affected area.  Doing so may work the inflammatory compound deeper into the skin, worsening the pain, and (to add insult to injury) spreads it further, contaminating the fingertips and any delicate area they may touch.

Getting Rid Of The Burn

The short answer is that there is no quick-and-simple method of stopping the pain. Every individual has a slightly different physiological makeup and, consequently; tolerance for and reaction to the oleoresin capsicum compound found in the spray.  However, a number of “standard operating procedures” do exist; whichever is most feasible under the circumstance of accidental discharge should be utilized as soon as possible.

  • The application of whole milk (which is rich is milk fat) to the inflamed area is a time-tested method for reducing the burning sensation.  As is the case with the aforementioned techniques which should not be used, applying milk works both for the consumption and topical contamination of capsicum compounds.  Milk can be applied in any manner that is convenient: A towel or garment can be soaked in it and applied to the skin as a sort of poultice; it can be misted onto the skin with a spray bottle repeatedly, or dribbled from a cupped hand or a bowl.  If milk isn't accessible, but another cold dairy product – such as full-fat yogurt or cream – is, it should be utilized instead.  The “milk technique” is effective as a stop-gap measure, but fails to actually remove the oily, inflammatory agents found in pepper spray from the skin. 
  • If an accidental discharge occurs in proximity to a home or a retail outlet, the likelihood of accessing dish detergent or other liquid soaps is high.  Creating a 1:3 mix of detergent and water (25 percent detergent, 75 percent water) is recommended for maximum effectiveness.  Cold water should be used; when irritation occurs, cold counters it, while heat aggravates it.  Since capsicum compounds have a relatively long-lived topical effect, at least 4 liters (one gallon) of this mix should be made; one should expect to apply and wash it off at least half a dozen times – or more.  If the victim has fragrance or chemical sensitivities, unscented and uncolored detergent should be used to avoid introducing more irritating substances – if it is available on short notice.
  • If someone's face has been sprayed, the same ratio of detergent:water should be mixed, but in a vessel suitable for immersing the face.  The face should be immersed for as long as fifteen seconds, eyes tightly shut, mouth closed and breath held.  Remember to breathe deeply and normally when coming up for air.  The skin needs to be exposed to the detergent-water mix several times for a 10 to 15 second duration so the capsicum oils can be degraded.  Do not rub  the skin with the hands or anything else right away.  After 4 or 5 immersions, a soft cloth, or the fingertips (either one has to be soaked/dipped in the detergent-water mix) can be used to lightly massage the mixture into the skin.  It is normal to experience a temporary exacerbation of symptoms. Remain patient; they will diminish.  How quickly the skin recovers from being pepper-sprayed is dependent on the individual's physiology and skin sensitivity.  When the skin feels normalized enough to touch, slightly more pressure can be used to further massage the mixture in. At this point, fresh water can be splashed on the skin between detergent-water applications.  If it seems that more detergent-water mix is needed, a fresh batch, free of any residual, can be made.
  • If  it contaminates the eyes, and the unintended victim wears contact lenses, the lenses need to be removed as soon as possible.  Keeping them in the eyes will trap the burning compounds and make cleaning the eyes difficult.  Do not flush the eyes with contact lenses still in them. Attempting to remove the spray from the lenses will be a fruitless endeavor; they must be discarded and replaced.  The eyes will squeeze, flutter and shed tears; these are natural responses to any irritant and will help remove the spray. To expedite the process, the eyes can be rinsed with a solution of saline.
  • Medics sometimes treat the contamination with a combination of liquid antacid and water, using aluminum hydroxide or magnesium hydroxide based antacids, such as Maalox. First, water is used to rinse the eyes, followed by several drops of the liquid antacid-water mixture.  However, this treatment is not recommended for the inexperienced.
  • When the eyes are being flushed, whether with saline – or, if unavailable, plain water or water mixed with salt - the victim should sit or kneel.  Leaning forward will cause less water or other solution to splash the clothes they are wearing, and help prevent contaminating their clothes with pepper spray.  Their head should be tilted to the side of the eye that is being flushed.  The eye should be opened by pinching slightly below the center of the eyebrow, and flushed from the inner corner of the eye to the outside, quickly, avoiding the tear-duct.  The solution should not make its way into the other eye.
  • When dealing with this type of substance, which has the potential (however small) of causing unintended pain, preemptive measures should always be taken.  Those who choose to carry pepper spray may also consider carrying a product called Sudecon Wipes.  These small, individually packaged decontamination wipes contain a rapidly acting solution that neutralizes the agents found in pepper spray (and tear gas).  They are able to reduce the sensation of burning is as little as seven minutes.

The above methods of removing pepper spray from the skin and eyes are effective, and (with the exception of the liquid antacid-water formulation) are accessible to most individuals.  It is important for anyone that has been accidentally pepper-sprayed to remember that even when the correct procedures to remove contamination are followed, residual irritation can subsist for a few hours after the incident.  Patience, calmness and avoiding inflaming the area more – by rubbing or scratching – are important.  The uncomfortable sensations will subside.

A Note On Anaphylactic Reactions

Pepper spray is “non-lethal”.  Under almost any circumstance, it causes temporary, albeit extremely uncomfortable effects – not death.  No lethal dose is noted on the MSDS for the oleoresin capsicum compound.  However, several incidents in which pepper spray caused death have been documented. The deaths were the result of a fatal reaction to the spray, referred to as anaphylaxis.  Anaphylaxis manifests as shock, loss of consciousness and airway obstruction.  (In highly allergic individuals, other substances, such as those found in bee-stings, shellfish and peanuts can cause the same reaction.)  Asthma is a risk factor for an adverse (fatal) reaction to it.  Although anaphylactic shock can be treated with the correct medicines, if utilized in a timely manner, and by a qualified individual, this rare but serious side effect must serve as a burden and strong reminder of responsibility to anyone considering carrying a spray.  This powerful spray is not a toy.  It must be respected and only be used when absolutely necessary.  Occasionally, accidents happen – and if the product is unintentionally discharged, this article may be referenced to find commonplace antidotes.

Page last updated on: July 25th, 2014

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