Anyone who has worked with hot peppers while cooking knows that the capsaicin in them that gives peppers their spice can stick around on hands after handling. As a result, it's fairly easy to transfer the pepper to your eyes, simply by touching or rubbing your eyes while working. Here's what you should do if you find yourself in a painful situation after exposing your eyes to hot peppers.
Don't Leave It Alone
Many people are content to let their eye work its own magic when problems arise, like bits of dust or dirt getting into the eye. After all, the eye is designed to flush these things out with tears. However, tears probably won't help here.
Tears are primarily made up of water and salt. Water doesn't actually reduce the pain of capsaicin; instead, it can simply spread it around. As a result, your tearing up may actually make your eyes feel worse. You shouldn't try to stop your tears from flowing, but keep in mind that this isn't enough to be a solution.
Rinse it Out
With this in mind, don't reach for your water tap or a bottle of saline in order to flush your eye out. This is likely to increase the pain and make it more likely for you to continue touching your eye, which could damage it and allow the capsaicin to cause real damage to the cornea.
Instead, consider using milk. Although it may seem odd to put milk in your eye, it's actually recommended by optometrists and ophthalmologists for these situations because the milk binds to the capsaicin and breaks it down. This is why milk is so helpful when you eat something spicy. Don't try to use a milk alternative like soy or almond milk; these are unlikely to help and may harm your eye further.
When to Seek Help
There are a few instances where you should seek immediate help for this situation.
If you've been frantically scratching or rubbing your eye since the capsaicin burn started, you should seek help from an emergency eye doctor. This could have scratched the surface of your cornea and allowed capsaicin in, where it can cause damage to the delicate tissues of the eye hiding under the surface.
In addition, in some cases, the milk treatment may not be enough to stop the burning. This is especially true if you were dealing with a strongly spicy pepper like a habanero or California Reaper. If you don't feel significant relief after using the milk, contact an eye doctor immediately. Prolonged exposure to capsaicin can cause the eye to swell and pressure to increase inside of it, which can be devastating for your vision and increase the risk of having a problem like glaucoma crop up as a result.
For more information about emergency eye care, reach out to a local optometrist.