This article explains what tear gas does to the human body. The body’s reactions to tear gas and how it causes these reactions are both explored in depth.
I looked at several sources that describe the effects of tear gas. These sources include the testimony of those exposed to tear gas and research done by medical professionals. The following is a summary of what I learned.
Tear gas causes immediate and intense eye, nose, skin and respiratory irritation. These irritations causes tearing, burning, blurred vision, excess mucus, psychological distress, painful and difficult breathing.
How Tear Gas Effects the Body
Tear gas causes immediate and intense eye, nose, mouth, skin, and respiratory tract irritation. These irritations can include the following.
- burning eyes
- blurred vision
- nose and throat pain
- shortness of breath
- difficulty swallowing
- profuse mucus
- skin burns or rashes
- rapid heart rate
- psychological distress
Tear Gas: What It is and is Not
A tear gas is a chemical irritant commonly used to control and disperse crowds. All tear gas chemicals stimulate the nerves of the of the lacrimal glands to produce tears. These chemicals include capsaicin, CS, CR, and CN gas.
This article focuses on the most common tear gas chemical, CS (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile).
Tear gas is not a gas. It’s an aerosol. As an aerosol, tear gas consists of solid particles suspended in tiny liquid droplets. These droplets saturate and linger in the air.
The Health Impact of Tear Gas Exposure
Tear gas exposure rarely causes long lasting health problems. However, it should be avoided both for it’s unpleasant short term effects and possible long term effects. Those with weak respiratory systems and damaged skin are especially vulnerable to long lasting harm from tear gas. Furthermore, a tear gas grenade’s impact force, explosion, and high temperature can cause physical, non-chemical bodily harm including eye trauma and skin burns. source
Tear Gas is Usually Non-lethal
Tear gas exposure is not inherently lethal. Because it inflames respiratory airways, tear gas can cause death in those with severe respiratory problems such as asthma. Tear gas exposure can cause an increased heart rate and blood pressure. This can cause heart attack and death in those with preexisting heart conditions. source1 source2
Tear Gas Doesn’t Cause Blindness, but Tear Gas Grenades Can
Tear gas grenades can damage eyes with blunt force trauma. This damage can cause permanent and total vision loss. “The Daily Beast” and “Protecting Sight” report on protesters who received severe eye damage from tear gas grenades.
The CDC cites blindness and glaucoma(a serious eye condition that can lead to blindness) as possible effects of long-lasting exposure to tear gas. However, I could not find an example of this.
Can Tear Gas Injure Skin ?
Prolonged CS tear gas exposure can cause superficial skin burns. Dermal injuries are more common with CN tear gas exposure.
Tear gas grenades can cause skin burns. Direct contact with a hot tear gas grenade and subsequent tear gas exposure can burn skin.
Asthma and Tear Gas: A Bad Combination
People with asthma or other chronic respiratory conditions are at a high risk of severe over reaction to tear gas. Anyone with a weak respiratory system should avoid tear gas exposure. source
Abnormal Menstruation from Tear Gas Exposure
The short and long term effects of tear gas on the male and female reproductive system are not well studied. Protesters recently exposed to tear gas have reported abnormal menstrual cycles. These abnormalities include increased cramping, heavy bleeding, and having more than one period in a typical 28 day cycle. source1 source2
Can Tear Gas Act as an Abortifacient ?
There is no evidence tear gas is an abortifacient. Some sources claim tear gas can cause miscarriage. These claims were likely made for political reasons. No medical studies have proven tear gas can cause miscarriage. source1 source2
Several articles reference a University of Chile animal study on the effects of tear gas. The study supposedly found tear gas can cause miscarriage in animals. I am unable to find the official University of Chile documentation of this research. None of the articles cite the study. source
Contact Lenses and Tear Gas: Will Contact Lenses Melt ?
Tear gas cannot melt contact lenses. Tear gas does not have a high temperature capable of melting contact lenses. Contact lenses may prolong the effects of tear gas. By acting as a reservoir, contact lenses might retain tear gas and reduce the eye’s ability to remove it. source
What Tear Gas Feels Like
Tear gas makes the eyes feel like they were splashed with raw onion juice. In the nose, throat, and lungs, tear gas causes pain and inflammatory responses as if raw onion juice was snorted. This is because tear gas and onions act on the same irritant and pain sensor, TRPA1. source1 source2 source3 source4
How Tear Gas Works
Tear gas takes electrons from the TRPA1 protein ion channel. This ion channel is a sensor for pain and environmental irritants. When TRPA1 is activated, protective responses such as tears, coughing, and pain are induced. source
How to Treat Tear Gas Exposure
Leave the Area
Tear gas’ effects are relative to the amount of exposure. Therefore, the first thing to do after tear gas exposure is to leave the affected area. This will stop additional exposure and the resulting increased effects. source
Once outside the of the affected area, clothing is now the primary source of tear gas irritation. Tear gas is made of tiny solid particles. These particles will stay in contaminated clothing where they can irritate skin and reintroduce particles into the eyes and respiratory system. Contaminated clothing must be replaced to fully recover from tear gas exposure. source1 source2
Once out of the affected area, it’s best to get as much tear gas off as possible. Flushing the eyes and face with cold running water is the most effective way to remove tear gas. Expelling mucus and saliva contaminated by tear gas will also speed up recovery. source
Take a Cold Shower
A full body shower with soap and cold water will remove the remaining tear gas. This needs to be done to prevent a reintroduction of tear gas into the eyes and respiratory system. Sharing tear gas particles with others will also be prevented by showering them away. Warm water should not be used because it will open the skin’s pores. Tear gas particles will enter opened pores which will exacerbate tear gas’ effects. source1 source2
The most effective way to neutralize tear gas is diphoterine decontamination. Diphoterine rapidly removes tear gas irritation resulting in a fast and full recovery. Also, diphoterine is effective at preventing the effects of tear gas. In one study, it was applied to test subject’s eyes and face before tear gas exposure. They experienced no negative reaction when exposed to tear gas. source