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Capsaicin is the ingredient
found in different types of hot peppers, such as cayenne peppers, that makes
the peppers spicy hot. You can eat it in raw or cooked peppers or as a dried
powder, which you can add to food or drinks. It also is available as a dietary
supplement and in topical creams that you apply to your skin.
When a capsaicin cream
or ointment is used on the skin (topical use), capsaicin helps relieve pain.
Capsaicin works by first stimulating and then decreasing the intensity of pain
signals in the body. Although pain may at first increase, it usually decreases
after the first use. Capsaicin stimulates the release of a compound believed to
be involved in communicating pain between the nerves in the spinal cord and
other parts of the body.
When you apply it to the skin, capsaicin
may help relieve pain from:
In general, you use creams containing capsaicin for pain
relief. You can put the creams on your skin up to 4 times a day. You may feel a
burning or itching sensation the first few times you use the cream, but this
will gradually decrease with each use. Wash your hands thoroughly after each
use to avoid getting the cream in your eyes or on other moist
mucous membranes, where it can cause a burning
sensation. Do not use the cream on areas of broken skin.
When you eat hot peppers or take
capsaicin as a dietary supplement, the capsaicin may improve your digestion by
increasing the digestive fluids in the stomach and by fighting bacteria that
could cause an infection. It may also help fight diarrhea caused by bacterial
Capsaicin may help prevent heart disease. It may
stimulate the cardiovascular system and may lower blood
cholesterol levels and
blood pressure. It also helps prevent clotting and
hardening of arteries (atherosclerosis).
Capsaicin acts as an
antioxidant, protecting the cells of the body from
damage by harmful molecules called
free radicals. Capsaicin also may help prevent
Capsaicin may also make
mucus thinner and help move it out of the lungs. It is
also thought to strengthen lung tissues and help to prevent or treat
Experts in the United States
generally consider capsaicin to be safe. But it can cause some unpleasant
effects, especially for those who are not used to it. Be careful when you cook
with or eat hot peppers. Begin with small amounts, and increase the amount as
you get used to it.
An allergic reaction to capsaicin is
possible. If you are just beginning to use capsaicin, either as fresh or
prepared food or in powder form, start with small amounts. If you use a topical
cream, you should first apply it to a small area of skin to test for an
Do not take capsaicin if you have
high blood pressure or are already being treated for
high blood pressure.
To reduce the burning sensation, remove the
seeds from the peppers before you eat or cook with them. Also, if you eat
bananas along with the peppers, you may reduce the burning sensation.
Extremely high intake of capsaicin may cause
ulcers, but it’s rare for anyone to consume enough for
this to be a problem.
Don't let capsaicin come into contact with
your eyes and other moist mucous membranes. After you touch capsaicin (or hot
peppers), use vinegar or soap to wash your hands so you don't accidentally
spread capsaicin to your eyes, nose, or mouth. You can also use disposable
gloves to handle hot peppers or to apply capsaicin cream.
apply capsaicin creams to areas of broken skin.
The U.S. Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way
it regulates medicines. A dietary supplement can be sold with limited or no
research on how well it works.
Always tell your doctor if you are
using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about combining a dietary
supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to
forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a dietary
supplement. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or
When using dietary supplements, keep in mind the
Other Works Consulted
Murray MT (2013). Capsicum frutescens (cayenne pepper). In JE Pizzorno, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th ed., pp. 633–637. St. Louis: Mosby.
Capsicum peppers (2009). In A DerMarderosian et al., eds., Review of Natural Products. St. Louis: Wolters Kluwer Health.
June 11, 2013
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
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