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.
An FDA advisory committee recently recommended that the FDA set certain limits on acetaminophen, a drug that is used in many prescription and nonprescription medicines to relieve pain and reduce fever.
Those limits could include taking off the market some prescription drugs, such as the painkillers Percocet and Vicodin, which combine acetaminophen with other active ingredients.
The reason for the proposed limits is the risk of liver damage from taking too much acetaminophen.
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 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
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.