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Capsaicin, the chemical that makes various chile peppers (chile refers to the pepper, chili refers to the sauce) "hot,' is a common cause of burns to both the fingers and the eyes. This chili-pepper chemical has a peculiar effect in the nervous system. It activates some of the nerve fibers that send pain signals to your brain, but not all. Capsaicin has no effect at all on "mechano-sensitive" nerve fibers, the kind of nerves that would send a pain message to your brain if you hit your thumb with a hammer. On the other hand, as anyone who has handled chile peppers with bare hands knows, capsaicin has a very strong effect on "hyperalgesic" nerve fibers that amplify pain signals to warn the brain that you have encountered a toxic chemical.

It's this odd quality of capsaicin that makes it so popular. When you eat a burning chili sauce, your nervous system is temporarily less sensitive to heat and humidity in the air around you. Capsaicin turns down your "thermostat" so that your body produces less heat, making it easier for you to deal with heat. That's part of the reason chile peppers and chili sauces are so popular in hot climates. Capsaicin can also override pain signals from muscle injuries. That's why it is included in back rubs and muscle liniments. You feel a little heat pain rather than a lot of muscle pain when you put measured amounts of it on your skin.

Capsaicin is also antibacterial. It counteracts some of the common pathogens, such as E. coli, that spoil food. It kills some of the species of bacteria that cause the potentially fatal condition sepsis. This is another reason chile peppers are so popular in parts of the world which only recently began using refrigerators.

But what if you just want to keep chile peppers from burning your fingers? Here are some suggestions:

  • Wear disposable latex gloves (assuming you aren't allergic to latex). Discard by turning them inside out and carefully disposing of them into the trash, handling them by the opening at the wrist.
  • If you don't wear gloves while slicing, dicing, chopping, or mincing chile peppers, at least be sure you don't rub your eyes or wipe your nose with pepper juice on your fingers.
  • If you get pepper juice on your fingers, rub them with olive oil, butter, margarine, or vegetable oil for a minute to dissolve the capsaicin (which dissolves better in fat than in water), and then wash them with soap and water. You need the soap to dissolve the fat and carry away the capsaicin.
  • If this doesn't relieve the burning pain you get from the peppers, then soak your finger tips in a small dish of whole milk. It's the milk fat that gets capsaicin out from under your nails to stop the burning. You don't want to dunk your entire hand into the mixture because that could spread the capsaicin even further.

Not all peppers are equally likely to burn your hands.

  • Some peppers, such as the Komodo dragon pepper, ghost pepper (bhut jolokia), Trinidad scorpion peppers, and Carolina reaper contain enough capsaicin to put you in the hospital if you handle the chopped pepper and the rub your eyes or nose.
  • Other peppers are just intensely, not dangerously, hot. These include the Scotch bonnet, habanero, bird's eye chili, and datil peppers. These can cause burns that hurt for several hours, but won't put you in the hospital.
  • Malagueta, chiltepin, and piri piri peppers burn less intensely.
  • Other peppers usually don't cause problems unless an individual pepper was unusually hot. These include serrano peppers, jalapeno peppers, wax peppers, and poblano peppers.
  • Banana peppers, wax peppers, and pimentos contain less than 1/1000 of the heat of the most capsaicin-rich peppers.
  • Bell peppers contain no capsaicin at all.

The higher the pepper is up the list, the more careful you need to be when handling it.


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