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Riot-Control Chemical Agents

(Tear Gas)


James M. Madsen

, MD, MPH, University of Florida

Reviewed/Revised Jan 2023

There are many types of chemical-warfare agents Overview of Chemical-Warfare Agents Chemical weapons are developed by governments for wartime use and include Toxic agents (intended to cause serious injury or death) Incapacitating agents (intended to cause only temporary, non–life-threatening... read more that affect different parts of the body. Riot-control agents are chemical compounds that were initially developed for crowd control but that have also been used in military conflicts. The term tear gas is often used, but the term is misleading, because it is not a gas. Instead, riot-control agents are solids that can be dissolved and dispersed as liquids or as aerosols (small particles are released explosively or as smoke). Riot-control agents are intended to incapacitate people, not cause serious injury or death, although deaths have occurred. Military versions of these agents include chloroacetophenone (CN, also marketed as Mace®), chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), dibenzoxazepine (CR), and diphenylaminoarsine (adamsite, or DM, a so-called vomiting agent). Oleoresin capsicum (OC, pepper spray) is a more recently developed riot-control agent used primarily for law enforcement and personal protection. Note that chemical warfare agents typically have a one- to three-letter military code that is easier to use than their chemical name.

Symptoms of Riot-Control Chemical Injuries

Most riot-control agents cause nearly immediate irritation and pain to the eyes, mucous membranes, and skin. People who inhale the agents develop coughing, sneezing, wheezing, and sometimes shortness of breath.

People typically recover from the effects within a half an hour, but agents left on the skin may cause blisters. Some people develop a permanent lung complication called reactive airways dysfunction syndrome Reactive airways dysfunction syndrome Asthma is a condition in which the airways narrow—usually reversibly—in response to certain stimuli. Coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath that occur in response to specific triggers are... read more Reactive airways dysfunction syndrome , which causes episodes of shortness of breath and wheezing, similar to that caused by asthma.

Diagnosis of Riot-Control Chemical Injuries

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Sometimes chest x-rays

Doctors base the diagnosis on the person's symptoms and history of exposure. People with shortness of breath may need chest x-rays, but other tests are not needed.

Treatment of Riot-Control Chemical Injuries

  • Removal from exposure

  • Decontamination of affected areas

At the first sign of exposure or potential exposure, masks are applied when available. People are removed from the affected area when possible.

First responders remove the agent by brushing, washing, or rinsing the affected area. Water may temporarily worsen the pain caused by certain riot-control agents (such as pepper spray) but is still effective. Oils or soapy liquids are probably more effective against pepper spray. Eyes are decontaminated by copious flushing with sterile plain or salt water.

Most effects resulting from riot-control agents are short-lasting, and most people do not need to go to the hospital. Even most people with more severe symptoms need to be observed in a hospital for only a few hours.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

More Information

The following English-language resource may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

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