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Personal defense sprays: Effects and management of exposure

1 December 1994


Background: Defense sprays have become quite popular for both police use and personal protection. Officers in more than 2000 law enforcement agencies now carry sprays, and the public spends millions of dollars per year on them. As more and more people carry sprays, it is inevitable that optometrists will be called upon to treat the ocular consequences of accidental or intentional exposure.

Types of Sprays: Most defense sprays contain o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS), co-chloroacetophenone (CN), oleoresin capsicum (OC), or a combination of these ingredients as the active agent. In addition, they contain propellants such as isobutane and/or propane, along with carriers such as isopropyl alcohol, hydrocarbons, or water.

Management of Exposure: All of the sprays cause significant ocular irritation, lacrimation, conjunctivitis, and blepharospasm. Initial management of spray victims involves a determination that there is no significant systemic distress, followed by ocular irrigation and decontamination. Recovery from the acute effects of the sprays typically takes 30 to 60 minutes; significant consequences of uncomplicated spray exposures are rare.

Effects of Sprays on Contact Lenses: Based on reports from police trainers, rigid gas permeable lenses can be cleaned and reworn after spray exposure. However, decontamination of soft lenses is more problematic. Gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy revealed residual capsaicin in lenses that had been cleaned two times after exposure to a spray containing OC. Therefore, it is recommended that exposed soft lenses be discarded.

Summary: The ocular consequences of exposure to defense sprays typically resolve without complications, and can usually be managed either by a telephone consultation or an in-office evaluation.


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