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Capsaicin - Topic Overview

What is capsaicin?

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.

What is capsaicin used for?

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.

Supplement use

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 infection.

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 bacterial infections.

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 emphysema.

Is capsaicin safe?

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.

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