Needless to say, being on the receiving end of pepper (or capsicum) spray is never going to be recommended. While many governments approve the use of pepper spray by police or military groups, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it can cause considerable harm, especially to the eyes.
The effect of pepper spray on the eyes will be immediate, triggering uncontrollable tearing, involuntary closing of the eyelids, redness, swelling, stinging and temporary blindness. The epithelial layer of the cornea is disrupted by pepper spray, so people with impaired corneal integrity (diabetes, dry eye or recurrent corneal erosion) are particularly susceptible to these effects, compared to those with good eye health.
Anyone wearing contact lenses will need to remove them as soon as possible – using clean fingers, not skin that’s been in contact with pepper spray. The contact lenses should be thrown away, because they can’t be repaired.
Rubbing affected eyes will only increase the intensity of pain and should be avoided. You can try flushing eyes with a saline solution. Blinking vigorously to encourage tears will also help flush the irritant from the eyes.
How to Get Pepper Spray Out of Eyes
If you have been pepper sprayed, or somehow gotten pepper spray into your eyes, you will be desperate to wash it off. Pepper spray produces an extremely strong burning sensation in the eyes, causing them to shut. It can cause inflammation of the skin and can make it hard to breathe, which can be especially dangerous for people with asthma. There are a few different ways to get pepper spray out of your eyes, but don't expect the pain to disappear immediately.
Don't touch your eyes. Pepper spray is an oil-based substance which causes severe irritation to your eyes and skin. If you get pepper spray in your eyes, resist the temptation to touch your face or rub your eyes. Touching your face will just spread the oil around and increase the affected area.
Don't touch your face, but do tear up your eyes by blinking a lot.
Blinking produces liquid that helps start the process of flushing the spray residue from your eyes.
Take out any contact lenses. If you are wearing contact lenses when you get pepper spray in your eyes, take these out immediately. The spray residues will stick to the lenses and continue to irritate your eyes. Throw the lenses away. Even cleaning them will not remove the residue.
- After taking out your lenses, submerge your face in cool, clean water.
- Open and close your eyes underwater several times.
- Know how long the symptoms might last. Even if you manage to flush out your eyes, the symptoms may persist. Irritation to the eyes can continue anywhere from 30 minutes to over two hours. Inflammation of the throat lining can also cause breathing difficulties for up to an hour.
- If your symptoms are particularly severe or last longer than this, you should go to a hospital or walk-in centre.
- If you have asthma, pepper spray can cause serious breathing difficulties and you should get emergency medical treatment.
Flush your eyes with water. Pepper spray leaves an oily residue on your skin and in your eyes which you need to clean off as quickly as possible. The most straightforward way to do this is just by flushing your face and eyes with cool water. You should do this for at least fifteen minutes.
- After doing this, keep the affected areas open to the air. Being exposed to the air helps the irritant evaporate after you've flushed your eyes with water.
- If you have access to a sink or drinking fountain use this. Otherwise, use any clean water you can get hold of. You can also stand under a cold shower to rinse off.
- Consider adding soap. Flushing your face and eyes with water can help to wash off the oily pepper spray residue. To help remove it from your skin, you can add some mild, non-oil-based soap or dish detergent. Make a solution of one quarter mild detergent with three quarters cool water.
- Keeping your eyes firmly shut, dip your face into the solution for twenty seconds.
- Rinse off your face and repeat ten times.
- Refresh the solution after each rinse, so you are not putting your face back into pepper spray water.
- Don't get soap into your eyes. It will only further irritate them.
Use saline eye drops. There may be some oily residue left in your eyes after the burning sensation has begun to subside. To tackle this you can use some saline eye drops to flush out any final irritants. Just apply a few drops directly to your eyes and blink continuously.
You can buy these drops in drug stores, supermarkets and pharmacies.
Remember not to rub your eyes even after doing this.
1 Splash milk onto your face. Milk is often used by people hit with pepper spray. The milk can ease the burn from the spray, but will not clean off the oils and residue. You can use milk to relieve the burn on your skin to make it easier to effectively flush out your eyes. Splash whole milk onto your face, keeping your eyes closed.
Milk is less effective than washing with water or saline at getting rid of the pepper spray remnants. Experts also caution that it is not sterile.
Another way to apply milk is to pour some into a clean spray bottle. Keeping your eyes closed, squirt it over your face. This can lessen the irritation experienced by your skin, which in turn can make it easier for you to then go and flush out your eyes with water more effectively. However, be aware that the pain from pepper spray is immediate and intense, and you may not have time for this extra step.
Research found little effective difference in pain relief between the use of milk and that of water.
2 Use a towel soaked in milk. Soaking a towel in milk and then placing this on your skin can help to relieve the burn of pepper spray. Soak a towel in whole milk, sit back, close your eyes and lay the towel over your face. This will not get the pepper spray out of your eyes, but it can relieve pain and irritation on your eyelids and the skin around your eyes.
You can also submerge your face in milk to produce a similar effect.
3 Rinse it off with water. After applying milk to your face it's important to rinse it thoroughly with cool clean water. The milk method shouldn't replace the use of water to flush out your eyes, but it can help to relieve the other painful symptoms which will exacerbate your discomfort. After rinsing, remember not to cover your face and eyes with any bandages or cloth, leave it exposed to the air.
Overall, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that pepper spray will cause permanent damage to the eye, however repeated exposure could certainly cause permanent damage to the cornea.
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At Golden Eye Optometry, we view good vision care as front line protection at every age. A routine eye exam can detect more than poor vision. It can shed early light on glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts and diabetes.