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Hong Kong Med J. 2015 Dec;21(6):542-52. doi: 10.12809/hkmj154691. Epub 2015 Nov 6.

Clinicopathological effects of pepper (oleoresin capsicum) spray.

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Department of Medicine and Geriatrics, Tuen Mun Hospital, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong.
Private practice, Hong Kong.



Pepper (oleoresin capsicum) spray is one of the most common riot-control measures used today. Although not lethal, exposure of pepper spray can cause injury to different organ systems. This review aimed to summarise the major clinicopathological effects of pepper spray in humans.


MEDLINE, EMBASE database, and Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews were used to search for terms associated with the clinicopathological effects of pepper spray in humans and those describing the pathophysiology of capsaicin. A phone interview with two individuals recently exposed to pepper spray was also conducted to establish clinical symptoms.


Major key words used for the MEDLINE search were "pepper spray", "OC spray", "oleoresin capsicum"; and other key words as "riot control agents", "capsaicin", and "capsaicinoid". We then combined the key words "capsaicin" and "capsaicinoid" with the major key words to narrow down the number of articles. A search with other databases including EMBASE and Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews was also conducted with the above phrases to identify any additional related articles.


All article searches were confined to human study. The bibliography of articles was screened for additional relevant studies including non-indexed reports, and information from these was also recorded. Non-English articles were included in the search.


Fifteen articles were considered relevant. Oleoresin capsicum causes almost instantaneous irritative symptoms to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Dermatological effects include a burning sensation, erythema, and hyperalgesia. Ophthalmic effects involve blepharospasm, conjunctivitis, peri-orbital oedema, and corneal pathology. Following inhalation, a stinging or burning sensation can be felt in the nose with sore throat, chest tightness, or dyspnoea. The major pathophysiology is neurogenic inflammation caused by capsaicinoid in the pepper spray. There is no antidote for oleoresin capsicum. Treatment consists of thorough decontamination, symptom-directed supportive measures, and early detection and treatment of systemic toxicity. Decontamination should be carefully carried out to avoid contamination of the surrounding skin and clothing.


Pepper (oleoresin capsicum) spray is an effective riot-control agent and does not cause life-threatening clinical effects in the majority of exposed individuals. Early decontamination minimises the irritant effects.


Aerosols; Capsaicin/adverse effects; Neurogenic inflammation

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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