The sensory response to capsaicin during repeated topical exposures: differential effects on sensations of itching and pungency

Pain. 1993 Jun;53(3):323-334. doi: 10.1016/0304-3959(93)90228-H.


Changes in sensory irritation were measured during repeated topical exposures to capsaicin over 2 days. The perceived intensities of itching and pungent sensations, predominantly burning and stinging/pricking, were assessed every 60 sec during 5 applications of capsaicin at inter-stimulus intervals (ISI) of 90 min (Exp. 1) or 15 min (Exp. 2) and in follow-up tests 24 h later. Psychophysical measurements were obtained with a hand-held dynamometer in conjunction with the method of magnitude production. When the ISI was 90 min, itching and pungency were both significantly reduced (i.e., desensitization occurred) by the fifth exposure; however, the reduction occurred more rapidly and dramatically for itching. After 24 h, desensitization remained significant only for itching. When the ISI was 15 min, the sensations on day 1 first intensified in a manner consistent with sensitization, then declined in a manner consistent with desensitization; compared to pungency, itch exhibited less sensitization and more desensitization. On day 2, overall intensity was less for both categories of sensation, primarily because of a reduction in sensitization. Marked individual differences were observed in the overall sensitivity to capsaicin, the time course of sensation, the susceptibility to capsaicin-induced itch, and the rate and duration of sensitization and desensitization. The results are discussed in terms of current hypotheses about the sensory mechanisms that underlie chemically induced itch and the use of capsaicin as a topical analgesic and antipruritic.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Topical
  • Adult
  • Capsaicin / administration & dosage
  • Capsaicin / toxicity*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Irritants / toxicity*
  • Male
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Pruritus / chemically induced*
  • Pruritus / physiopathology
  • Skin / drug effects
  • Stimulation, Chemical


  • Irritants
  • Capsaicin