Background: Pepper spray is a common lacrimator used by law enforcement and the public to subdue individuals and for self-defense. The risk factors for severe injury due to pepper spray exposure are not well documented and there is a lack of guidelines to identify patients that require transport and medical evaluation in an emergency department.
Objective: The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence of and circumstances associated with symptoms suggestive of tissue injury beyond transient irritation in persons exposed to pepper spray.
Methods: We reviewed all human exposures to pepper spray reported to a poison control system between 2002 and 2011. Cases were differentiated into 2 outcome groups: minor or self-limiting symptoms versus those with more severe symptoms suggestive of tissue injury that warranted a medical evaluation. A comparison of the variables between the outcome groups was performed using odds ratios (ORs), 95% confidence intervals (CIs), and associated P values.
Results: A total of 4,544 cases were identified and 3,671 met the inclusion criteria. Of these, 249 cases (6.8%) were found to have more severe symptoms that warranted a medical evaluation. There were no reported deaths. The cases with more severe symptoms most commonly involved the ocular (53.8%), respiratory (31.7%), and dermal (17.7%) organ systems. Factors with largest independent associations with more severe outcomes were use for law enforcement training (OR, 7.39; 95% CI, 2.98-18.28), direct intentional exposure for purposeful use to incapacitate (OR, 3.02; 95% CI, 1.80-5.06), and for law enforcement on individual target suspects or crowd control (OR, 2.45; 95% CI, 1.42-4.23).
Conclusions: There was a low 1 in 15 potential risk for more severe adverse health effects in persons exposed to pepper spray that warranted a medical evaluation. The risk was highest when used for training of law enforcement personnel and involved severe ocular symptoms. This suggests that routine use of pepper spray for training of law enforcement or military personnel be reconsidered. Protective goggles may be an option when direct spraying into the face of trainees. Transport for medical evaluation should be considered for exposed persons that manifest persistent ocular or respiratory symptoms.
Keywords: capsaicin; eye injury; pepper spray; respiratory injury; tear gas.