This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

We Found Out Why Chilli Burns So Much (And What Helps Take The Pain Away)

On the way in AND out, if you catch our drift.
Water ain't gonna help.
Water ain't gonna help.

You either love a lot of chilli in your life, or you avoid it at all costs for fear of impending death. Either way, we can all agree that chilli can burn like the hottest fire in hell.

Whether it's a spicy Vindaloo curry or a jalapeño-laden taco, after a dose of chilli you might start doing the 'ha ha haaaa' face, shake your hands about and exhale quickly in the hope of breathing the pain away. With swollen, red lips and watering eyes, you might drink a glass of water to find it doesn't help AT ALL.

But why does chilli burn so bad (or good, for chilli heads), and what can we do to stop the pain?

To find out, The Huffington Post Australia talked to Alex Russell, a taste and smell perception expert from Southern Cross University.

"The first thing to talk about in terms of taste, smell and food is all about chemicals," Russell told HuffPost Australia. "We have all these different receptors in our nose and mouth that react to these chemicals. The usual thing we get out of them is smells and flavours.

"With chilli, though, there's a particular chemical which actually causes a pain sensation -- capsaicin. It actually stimulates and binds to these receptors that gives us this burning pain sensation."

These receptors in our body are called capsaicin receptors or vanilloid receptors, and they have a code which is called TrpV1.

"These receptors are also the ones that react to heat -- anything over 40 degrees Celsius will set off these receptors -- and that burning sensation we get is it then telling us they're being activated, essentially," Russell explained.

Ever had a spicy meal for dinner and the next morning you've had an... unpleasant, spicy toilet experience? Well, we've got those capsaicin receptors in our anuses, too.

Don't do it, lady.
Don't do it, lady.

"These receptors are not only in our mouths, they're anywhere where there's a mucous membrane -- your eyes, genitals and anus. That's why chilli sometimes burns on the way out, because it hasn't been neutralised during digestion," Russell said.

"This is why you've also got to be so careful about washing your hands, or getting carried away after dinner, shall we say... There are pretty common horror stories."

While we mostly feel chilli's pain sensation in our mouths, eyes and privates, depending on the type of chilli and our skin sensitivity, we can also feel it on other skin surfaces.

"Those areas of our body are particularly sensitive to this capsaicin, but chilli will burn anywhere as it's actually an irritant -- it will burn your other skin like your hands, but we just don't feel it as much as they're not rich in these receptors," Russell said.

"Chilli can also be a respiratory irritant. It's rare but if you're particularly susceptible to it you can actually die from inhaling too much chilli. There's even a lethal dose of chilli for mice."

Pretty but painful.
Pretty but painful.

Okay, so you are out at dinner and have given into your dad's badgering to "not be such a wuss" and try his three-chilli, clearly hot-as-blazes curry. You hesitantly take a bite and, lo and behold, it's spicy. REAL SPICY. What do you do? Drink water?

"To get rid of capsaicin, water doesn't really work because it's hydrophobic," Russell told HuffPost Australia.

"To get rid of the sensation, you need something like olive oil or milk. Milk has a chemical called casein that essentially works as a detergent to wash capsaicin off the receptors.

"Alcohol will work as well but you generally need pretty strong alcohol to do it -- for example, whisky."

Should you not want the chilli to burn on the way out, drinking milk can also help prevent this.

"If you drink a lot of milk with your chilli, a lot of the capsaicin will be neutralised and it won't hurt so much later on," Russell explained.

Oh, sweet relief.
Oh, sweet relief.

Essentially, if you want to stop the burn, it's not about just putting something cold in your mouth. It's about using something with the right, capsaicin-fighting ingredients.

"You're getting these things to bind to the capsaicin so it releases it from the receptors," Russell added.

You may now be wondering why you are more sensitive to chilli (or why you're such a boss and can handle it), and Russell says this primarily comes down to frequency and cultural reasons.

"Most of the chillis we eat, like jalapeño, feel really hot to Australians as we don't eat a lot of chilli," Russell said. "If you go over to Mexico or Asian countries, they do love a lot of chilli and they develop a bit of a tolerance to it. The chilli we're eating is really quite low in terms of capsaicin concentrations."

As with anything, some people are just more sensitive. Some people have more sensitive receptors, just as they would with bright light, and have different levels of tolerances.

To put that into perspective, let's take a look at the Scoville scale, a measurement of the pungency (spicy heat) of chillies.

"If you get completely undiluted capsaicin it's 18 million on the Scoville scale. There's a hot chilli which is put in an extremely hot curry over in the UK and that's about about 6 million. Jalapenos are around 2,000."

Don't worry, Russell also said some people may just be more sensitive to chilli's burning fire. However, it is possible to build a tolerance and, dare we say, enjoyment.

"As with anything, some people are just more sensitive. Some people have more sensitive receptors, just as they would with bright light, and have different levels of tolerances. It's just the way it is," he said.

"But we can certainly build up tolerance to chilli and the only real way to do that is to just keep eating it and get used to the sensation."

Loving chilli and its effects may seem odd, but growing an appreciation of unusual foods and drinks is something we all do when growing up.

"It's not surprising because we do this with all sorts of other foods. Beer or coffee, for example, is bitter and when you drink it when you're young, your first reaction is usually disgust," Russell told HuffPost Australia. "Bitter is all about not eating this thing because it's associated with poison in nature.

"Over time, we drink a lot of beer and coffee and we develop a tolerance to it. It's the same thing with chilli. It's all about how you've developed this tolerance and gotten used to this over time and how much you're willing to put up with."

Russell explains it's not as though we develop a general tolerance to bitterness, but that we develop a specific liking to the bitterness in coffee and beer.

"It's sort of the same thing with chilli," he added. "It's not like we develop a tolerance to all burning sensations in the mouth, but an appreciation of why the burn from chilli is necessary and it becomes a signal of fun. For some people it's a macho, manly thing."

Fascinating stuff, folks.

Suggest a correction
This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia. Certain site features have been disabled. If you have questions or concerns, please check our FAQ or contact