Friday’s Google Doodle celebrated the 151st birthday of Wilbur Scoville, the guy who developed the system to measure hot pepper heat.
In one of those odd cosmic coincidences (that usually aren’t coincidences), as I was driving home Wednesday evening I got into the car just as NPR’s All Things Considered was finishing a news segment on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The portion of the report I heard was about Hillary eating raw hot peppers to boost her immune system on the campaign trail.
I’m a big fan of peppers, hot, medium and mild. I love to grow peppers, I love to cook with them, and I love the variety. I think peppers are just plain pretty. I’ve also intentionally “consumed” hot peppers for an immune system boost.
Which brings me to the point of this post…..a story I’ve wanted to blog about for some time.
About this time of year, in the throes winter of 1999 or 2000, I had one of those relentless sinus infections I’d picked up from someone on campus. I was still in graduate school at the time, working on my Ph.D. You may or may not know this, but college campuses are second only to preschools for harboring infectious bacteria and viruses that cause respiratory “distress.”
I’ve never been one to run to the doctor for help when a cold or sore throat came knocking—fortunately, they’ve been few and far between, especially in the years since this particular round of germ warfare. But in this case, I’d finally had enough. I was getting worse, not better. I couldn’t breathe through my nose, which meant sleep was almost impossible. I was carrying a box of Kleenex with me to campus because, well, my sinuses were producing gallons of unpleasantness.
Around the 2-1/2 to 3 week mark I paid a visit to the campus infirmary. I think it was already renamed the University Health Service at that time. Anyway, as I could have predicted, the doc said I had an upper respiratory infection (I knew that) and that it would be better in about 2 weeks. I said I’d already had it for at least 2 weeks and it was getting worse. He said if the discharge turned green to come back. I said it was already dark yellow. Nonetheless, I was sent home with the advice to take some Sudafed and come back in a few weeks if I wasn’t better. Well, that was a big waste of time.
The Pepper Cure
I always kept a bag of frozen peppers in the freezer. My parents grew them in the garden and we all froze them for use through the winter.
In the past, I’d had some success making a hot pepper salsa that I liked to eat. So I made some extra hot to “open up my sinuses.” It did not help.
I suffered for a few more days and then, one Sunday morning, I’d had enough. I was determined to clear my sinuses.
I went to the freezer and took out a nice large habañero, rinsed it and place in a saucer to thaw.
My plan: Eat the whole habañero. I’ll show those germs.
I tend to be proactive.
I’ve eaten many raw jalapeño peppers, so I didn’t think this would be a big deal. I’d been eating raw hot peppers since the time my dad offered my a dollar to eat a raw jalapeno when I was a kid. I loved to make hot, hot salsa to eat with corn tortilla chips. I put chopped up habañeros in my cornbread. I used Tabasco on my black-eyed peas. I ordered the 911 version of wings in a chicken wings restaurant—those were hot! I’d even accidentally eaten some of those hot peppers in Chinese dishes—those were even hotter than the 911 Wings.
So I stood in front of the kitchen counter and prepared to tackle the whole, raw habañero. Like I said, this was war. Germ warfare. I intended to emerge victorious.
Just before diving in, it occurred to me that chewing the pepper would make my lips and tongue burn and that really wasn’t my goal. My goal was to clear my sinuses. At the time, I was not knowledgeable in the properties of capsaicin and how it has been studied and used in both traditional medicine and in Chinese medicine.
I wanted to make sure to release the chemicals to open up my sinuses but I also didn’t want my lips and tongue to burn for hours. So rather than chew the pepper, I decided to poke some holes in the skin with a fork.
I swallowed the habañero whole. Barely felt any heat in my mouth. Nothing happened. I proceeded to go about my business.
About 30 minutes after I’d swallowed the pepper, I started to feel a gnawing sensation in my gut. It was like deep burn. Obvious, but not necessarily painful.
The sensation grew stronger and I suddenly realized I was about to be sick. Or so I thought.
I made it to the bathroom, my abdomen in knots, cramping. I had the nausea that goes along with a stomach virus but nothing was happening physically, beyond the intense burning and cramping in my gut.
Then the room started to spin and darken. I stretched out, face down on the tiled bathroom floor, sweating profusely.
I started to lose my vision. The room was completely dark—I was conscious but could not see anything. I was lying face down with my arms and hands above my shoulders around my face. My arms and legs were going numb. I couldn’t move or feel anything other than my burning, cramping intestines.
I lay there, motionless, conscious but like my head was in a vise, squeezing me further into the darkness. I remember thinking that someone would eventually find me lying there and wonder what had happened.
I lay there for probably 30 minutes, until the light started to return and feeling began to return to my limbs. As the numbness ebbed away, I managed to make my way to my bedroom and crawl feverishly under the covers. I was freezing cold. Once in bed, I managed to do a rudimentary pulse count using my wrist and it was in the 40s, even though my heart was pounding and felt like it was racing.
I’m not exactly sure how much time passed from the moment I started to go numb and blackout. The whole ordeal—from the moment I swallowed the pepper until I feverishly crawled to my bed–lasted about 2 hours.
Once my I got warmer and seemed to have stabilized physically, I dialed into the internet (still dial-up modem in those days) and started researching. This was before Google, so research was a bit different.
Capsaicin is About More Than Heat
But I quickly discovered that the medical world had been researching the use of capsaicin to alleviate pain in paraplegics and quadriplegics and that it was a potent chemical.
In hindsight, the Habañero ordeal has a humorous tone—I survived! But it was unnerving in the moment—literally and figuratively. I thought—then and now—that had it not been for my strong heart due to years of running and God’s grace I would not have survived.
The Habañero did not resolve my sinus infection, which was bacterial not viral. Eventually, it took a Z-pac to knock it out.
That said, my health did change after that time and I’ve been blessed to have only dealt with one sinus infection since then—the following winter.
I continue to eat habanero and other hot peppers, but I’ve learned my lesson—do not swallow them whole without chewing!
Moral of the Story: Do not swallow a whole habanero pepper. You will regret it.
This post is not intended to offer medical advice. This is a story about my personal experience and I would never repeat the experience. It almost ended in tragedy.