How Pepper Spray Works

The Potential Negative Effects of Pepper Spray

A protester recovers from a pepper spray attack outside of an employment office in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

One of the reasons pepper spray has become a popular law enforcement and self-defense tool is its ease of use. Today, pepper spray is also available in canisters that look like everyday objects -- a keychain, a ring, lipstick, a pen, or even an exercise weight -- so they can be concealed easily. However, one major disadvantage to most concealed pepper spray dispensers is that they don't spray as far as a typical aerosol canister. Law enforcement officers might carry larger canisters of pepper spray, or they might carry a combination of pepper spray and tear gas. There are also projectile dispensers for pepper spray that can be used in large crowds, such as during riots.

Another reason for pepper spray's popularity is that in the vast majority of cases there are no lasting effects. Pepper spray is biodegradable and leaves no traces on clothing, and the burning sensation typically disappears completely within 4 to 6 hours. Most people who have been sprayed with pepper spray usually do not experience any long-term health problems as a result.


However, some studies show that certain situations involving pepper spray can result in more severe effects. For example, if a person is allergic to any of the ingredients in the pepper spray, has asthma, or has a pre-existing heart condition, then the effects of pepper spray may be more severe and in some cases may lead to death. Part of the reason pepper spray is so controversial is that there have been a number of reported deaths where pepper spray was involved. Though the use of pepper spray has never been identified as the sole cause of death in these cases, it has been listed several times as a contributing factor.

So what can you do if you've been sprayed with pepper spray? In the next section we'll explore some home remedies, as well as what doctors and emergency medical teams use to treat the effects of pepper spray.