- 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.
- Topical: 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.
- Capsaicin may help relieve pain from:
- Pain disorders, including pain after surgery.
- Nervous system problems such as diabetic neuropathy, trigeminal neuralgia, and postherpetic neuralgia (shingles).
- Cluster headaches.
- Joint problems such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Skin conditions such as psoriasis.
- Mouth sores due to chemotherapy or radiation.
- 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.
- Digestion: 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 acts as an antioxidant, protecting the cells of the body from damage by harmful molecules called free radicals.
- Congestion: 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.
- 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.
- An allergic reaction to capsaicin is possible. If you are just beginning to use capsaicin, either as fresh or prepared food or in powder form, start with small amounts. If you use a topical cream, you should first apply it to a small area of skin to test for an allergic reaction.
- Do not take capsaicin if you have high blood pressure or are already being treated for high blood pressure.
- Extremely high intake of capsaicin may cause ulcers, but it’s rare for anyone to consume enough for this to be a problem.
- Don’t let capsaicin come into contact with your eyes and other moist mucous membranes. After you touch capsaicin (or hot peppers), use vinegar or soap to wash your hands so you don’t accidentally spread capsaicin to your eyes, nose, or mouth. You can also use disposable gloves to handle hot peppers or to apply capsaicin cream.
- Do not apply capsaicin creams to areas of broken skin.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way it regulates medicines. A dietary supplement can be sold with limited or no research on how well it works.
- Always tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a dietary supplement. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.