I wanted to do something nice for my friend. We live together, and she’d been cooking for me regularly, each dish looking like it belonged on the cover of a recipe book.
One day I told her I’d make dinner, and that afternoon went to the local grocer to pick up ingredients. The ‘South American brunch’ is one of Jamie Oliver’s 15-minute meals but it takes me about an hour, to give you an idea of my culinary level.
It’s the thought that counts, though, so I got my ingredients — tomatoes, cilantro, mint, lemon, black beans, cumin seeds, eggs and 4 fresh jalapeño peppers — and got to work.
I’d made the dish before, it has a hot pepper garnish. You slice the jalapeños add them to a mix of vinegar and sugar. But I’d never experienced what was about to happen.
I chopped my peppers. On the same board I prepped the tomatoes and the herbs. I picked them up with the tips of my fingers and dropped them in my cup of vinegar. I scraped the excess into the bin off the chopping board with my hand. I assessed my recipe. I scratched my left eye. I felt a burning like my retina was being sizzled on the spot. I screamed. I ran to the bathroom. I squeezed my eyelid shut tight, afraid to see the damage. I splashed water near the area, fruitlessly.
Soon my hands were burning, too, with the fire of 1000 devils. One-eyed and in excruciating, increasing-by-the-minute pain I threw the last parts of dinner together and went to my room so as not to ruin the ambience of the meal. Sent a text: “There’s dinner there for you on the bench!”
In my room, my jalapeño hell was just beginning. I was dealing what felt like 2nd or 3rd-degree burns. I messaged my other roommate who was still at work: Something bad has happened, I need help. I was preparing her for having to take me to the ER. I googled my symptoms in between bouts with an ice pack — I had Jalapeño Hands.
Chemically speaking, Jalapeño Hands is caused by exposure to the capsaicin in peppers. Capsaicin does not actually cause a chemical burn, but it reacts with your nervous system in a way that makes your body think you’ve been burned, triggering tissue inflammation. More specifically, it triggers our TRVP1 receptors which are there to give us a signal (through a burning sensation) if activated. It’s activated by contact with things hotter than 43 degrees Celsius or with a very acidic pH balance, alerting us to harm. But it’s also activated by capsaicin. Hence why it’s an active ingredient in pepper spray.
When Anna entered the room I was in a state. I was lying in the dark, arms extended and fingers dangling in direct blast of the AC, eyes squeezed shut trying to will myself to sleep or to early death after trying a series of failed home remedies: dish-washing liquid, milk, the ice pack. Nothing had soothed the pain for more than a couple of minutes.
Her arrival brought opportunity for more science experiments found on the Internet, thanks to her ability to use her hands to google. She soon tracked down an equivalent substitute for seeing a medical professional — a 24-page, 241-comment long thread on the chat forum of a cooking website.
“HELP… fingers are burning from cutting jalapenos. Remedies?” OP posted in 2006.
The replies were soothing in the fact hundreds of others had gone through the same desperation I had, frantically plunging their hands into anything in their fridge or bathroom cabinet to relieve the pain. The varying results had been reported in the thread. These are just some of the suggestions:
- Soak hands in lime juice
- Soak hands in vodka
- Run hands under hot water until too painful to bear
- Cover hands in yoghurt
- Cover hands in sour cream
- Put fingers in bleach
- Pee on hands
- Crush Mylanta and rub on hands
- Sugar scrub
- Aloe vera
At least two women on the forum said they’d each given birth to 5 babies, one without drugs, and still found the pepper pain more excruciating. The thread is still going today, with the most recent comment some 6 months ago.
For the record, Anna made me a lime finger bath and a vodka finger bath, and I rotated between the two. I also did the hot water method (meant to open your pores to release the capsaicin), but I think it was too late. I eventually went to sleep but woke up with a big, red burning handprint on my leg the next day from where my jalapeño hand had rested on my body. Symptoms passed after about 24 hours.
Moral of the story, Jalapeno Hands are no joke. Handle with caution…and gloves.