What to Do If You Are Exposed To Tear Gas

How to Deal with Tear Gas

A gas mask is the best protection against tear gas.
A gas mask, such as the one this Buddhist monk is wearing, is the best protection against tear gas. Rufus Cox/Stringer/Getty Images

Tear gas (e.g., CS, CR, Mace, pepper spray) is used to control riots, disperse crowds, and subdue individuals. It is intended to cause pain, so exposure to it is not fun. However, the effects of the gas usually are temporary. You can expect relief from most of the symptoms within a couple of hours of exposure. This is a look at how to prepare for a potential encounter with tear gas, with tips on how to respond.

Symptoms of Tear Gas Exposure

  • stinging and burning of the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin
  • excessive tearing
  • blurred vision
  • runny nose
  • salivation (drooling)
  • exposed tissue may develop a rash and a chemical burn
  • coughing and difficulty breathing, including a feeling of choking
  • disorientation and confusion, which may lead to panic
  • intense anger

The disorientation and confusion may not be totally psychological. In some cases, the solvent used to prepare the tear gas may contribute to the reaction and may be more toxic than the lachrymatory agent.

What to Do

Tear gas usually is delivered in the form of a grenade, which is fitted onto the end of a gas gun and fired with a blank shotgun cartridge. Therefore, you may hear shots being fired when tear gas is used. Don't assume you are being shot at. Do not panic. Look up when you hear the shot and avoid being in the path of the grenade. Tear gas grenades often explode in the air, delivering a metal container which will spew gas.

This container will be hot, so do not touch it. Do not pick up an unexploded tear gas canister, since it could explode and cause injury.

The best defense against tear gas is a gas mask, but if you don't have a mask there are still steps you can take to minimize damage from tear gas. If you think you might encounter tear gas you can soak a bandana or paper towel in lemon juice or cider vinegar and store it in a plastic baggie.

You can breathe through the acidified cloth for several minutes, which should give you sufficient time to get upwind or reach higher ground. Goggles are a great thing to have. You can use tight-fitting swim goggles if chemical safety goggles aren't available. Don't wear contacts anywhere you might encounter tear gas. If you are wearing contact lenses, immediately remove them. Your contacts are a loss as is anything else you can't wash.

You can wear your clothes again after you wash them but wash them separately that first time. If you don't have goggles or any sort of mask, you can breathe the air inside your shirt, since there is less air circulation and therefore a lower concentration of the gas, but that is counterproductive once the fabric becomes saturated.

First Aid

First aid for eyes is to flush them with sterile saline or water until the stinging starts to abate. Exposed skin should be washed with soap and water. Breathing difficulties are treated by administering oxygen and in some cases using medication that are used to treat asthma. Medicated bandages can be used on burns.