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What to do if you're pepper-sprayed

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What do I do when my SABRE pepper spray expires or is empty?

Your SABRE pepper spray does contain chemicals and should be disposed of in accordance with all local, state and federal regulations.

How can you protect yourself?

You’re already wearing a mask to protect yourself and others from the novel coronavirus, and that may be helpful. “Wearing a face mask may help reduce oral exposure (mouth, tongue and lips), but obviously won’t do anything to protect your eyes if you are exposed to pepper spray,” says Dr. Glatter.

“The fine mist from pepper spray poses a risk to unprotected eyes,” says Dr. Glatter, who recommends taking along a pair of goggles—like ski or swim goggles—with a tight seal. “Standard eyeglasses or sunglasses are not enough to ensure adequate eye protection in this scenario,” he says. Just be sure the goggles don’t make you feel more disoriented than you already will be if you’re coughing and feeling burning sensations.

You were pepper-sprayed: now what?

Most of the time, pepper spray is not used to control a crowd, but to deter or incapacitate a person in a one-on-one situation. The weapon’s sole purpose is to stop an attacker by inducing an almost-immediate burning sensation on their skin and in their eyes, nose, and mouth.

It’s similar to how you may feel when you’re chopping onions—your eyes immediately become irritated and you start to tear up. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to actually touch your eyes after slicing up a hot pepper, you’ve probably experienced another common pepper spray reaction—a blepharospasm.

That’s when your eyes shut tight and you have no control over your eyelids, so you can’t open them up. This is an automatic bodily response that aims to protect your eyes from whatever is irritating them, but it’s a bit counterintuitive—your eyes produce tears to wash away the irritant, so not being able to blink makes it harder to flush out. And that’s not the only problem.

“You can’t keep your eyes open, which often causes disorientation and agitation,” says Rohini Haar, an emergency physician and a research fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wearing tight swimming goggles or even big ski goggles may help protect your eyes, but recent videos from the protests against police brutality show law enforcement getting really close to demonstrators. Some officers have even pulled down protective equipment such as face masks or glasses before they spray. If this happens to you, goggles may not help, but they might redirect some of the spray or give you an extra second to duck.

Even if the spray doesn’t go directly into your nose and mouth, the agitation will make you breathe harder. This will make you inhale the spray, spreading the irritation and burning sensation into your airways and lungs. You will start to cough and your nose and mouth will produce extra saliva and mucus as your body tries to get rid of the OC. This might trigger a suffocating feeling that can lead to panic.

“The whole point is to get people to disperse,” says Harr. “But getting pepper sprayed has never caused people to calmly and safely disperse.”

Because OC spray is an oil, it’s hard to wash off and its effects last longer. The best way to eliminate it is to wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. Baby shampoo is a less-irritating alternative, says Harr. Milk has also been reported to help with symptoms, but there’s no scientific evidence to back this up. Also, oil repels milk, so dumping dairy on your face won’t help get OC spray off your skin.

If you ever get sprayed, first find help from somebody who can be your eyes and then immediately move somewhere safe where you can wash your face. Afterward, stay in an open space and wait it out—the air will help you recover. Psychologically speaking, having a particular goal or task in mind has been proven to help people fight through the effects of pepper spray despite the discomfort. Just keep thinking about the next step you need to take—to find water or get to a quieter place—and focus on that.

Sadly, once your skin, eyes, and airways are irritated, there’s not much you can do about it. Soap, fresh air, and even commercially available pepper spray relief will help prevent further contamination but won’t soothe your pain. Ingesting pepper spray affects your body differently, but you’ve still got to wait out the effects.

Rohini says she’s had to treat pepper spray victims in the ER. Those who were sprayed directly in the mouth experienced severe gastrointestinal distress, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain that lasted hours—sometimes days. Unfortunately, there’s not much doctors can do to stop the source of those problems, she says.

“I could give you something for your nausea and something for your pain, and some fluids,” she says. “But it’s just to treat your symptoms. You can’t fix that irritation.”

It might be hard not to scream while you’re being pepper-sprayed, but you should try to keep your mouth closed as much as you can to prevent ingestion. The less OC there is in your digestive system, the better.

No matter where the spray hits you, seek medical attention if any symptoms last for more than 45 minutes or if you find the situation is unbearable even before that time.

What does pepper spray do to the bodyand why does it hurt so much?

Contact with pepper spray results in an immediate, burning pain—specifically a burning, tearing, and swelling of the eyes, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS). Basically, everywhere hurts. "You'll feel it in your skin and eyes, and the sensation lasts about 30 minutes," Natasha Bhuyan, MD, an Arizona-based physician at OneMedical, tells Health.

Past that, when pepper spray is inhaled, the respiratory tract becomes "inflamed, resulting in a swelling of the mucous membranes lining the breathing passages and temporarily restricting breathing to short, shallow breaths," per the NCJRS. "We produce more mucus in our lungs, as an inflammatory response against the spray,” adds Dr. Bhuyan.

For people with healthy lungs, this may not be a huge issue, but if you have any chronic lung issues such as asthma or COPD, then pepper spray can be much more serious. "If you have any type of airway inflammation already, or any type of lung issues, [pepper spray] can cause bronchospasms,” warns Dr. Pena. Those bronchospasms, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, are essentially a tightening and narrowing of the breathing airways, which can be exceptionally dangerous for those with respiratory issues or lowered lung capacity.

Pepper spray's impact on the lungs is especially problematic with COVID-19 still circulating. While there's no known research as to how much pepper spray can affect those infected with or recovering from COVID-19, it's best to avoid it at all costs if you've been ill recently. "If you are a [COVID-19] survivor, in the healing and recovery stages, you should NOT be protesting,” advises Dr. Pena, “we just don’t know what can happen to [COVID-19] carriers and survivors if they come into contact with pepper spray."

RELATED: You Protested During the COVID-19 Pandemic—Should You Self-Quarantine and Get Tested?

What Does Pepper Spray Contain and Which Type to Use Against Wild Animals?

The main ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, oil extracted from cayenne peppers. Even though maybe you’ve been lucky enough not to experience this kind of scathing steam on your own skin, you still have to be familiar with the incredible burning sensation of peppers whether on your throat or just on your fingers.

Remember it and you can imagine the damage degree than a concentrated solution of this compound, can produce.

There are several types of pepper spray on the market, each designed for a particular use, varying in terms of concentration – for police use only, for personal protection against other humans and for protection against wild animals, specifically bear pepper spray.

You will want to be sure to buy the one that explicitly says bear use – these ones have a very high concentration of capsaicin and they also come in generously large recipients.

Of course, you can use it against mountain lions, wolves, coyotes or any other animal. The effect is as damaging and there haven’t been any deadly cases registered. Beware though, do not ever use this type of pepper spray on humans and also check the legislation in your country regarding the possession of this type of weapon, you may want to leave it home when wandering the streets of a city.

But how does it work? The spray shoots the atomized substance in the form a dense fog or mist at a distance of 5-9 meters. The moment it reaches the animal’s nose and eyes it immediately causes the mucous membrane to swell, it dilates the capillaries, thus restricts sight and breathing, inducing coughing, chocking, nausea.

Can I use pepper spray on animals such as dogs?

Only products approved for use on dogs by the United States EPA or Health Canada can be used on dogs. SABRE Red Protector Dog Spray contains the maximum potency allowed by the EPA. SABRE Dog Spray contains the maximum potency allowed by Health Canada.

You are allowed to carry the SABRE Dog Deterrant Sprays in Canada, but it is only legal to use on aggressive dogs and coyotes; it is not legal to be used on another human being.

Have a question that wasn’t covered here? Email info@sabrered.com