How Tear Gas Works

So You've Been Tear Gassed ...

tear gas
Medics wash a protester's eyes after police sprayed tear gas into a crowd demonstrating during the NATO summit on April 4, 2009, in Strasbourg, France.
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Whether you're an active protester, a world traveler or an enthusiastic sports fan, you might just have a future date with a face full of tear gas. So what's a person to do if he or she wants to avoid the worst of the symptoms? Aside from experiencing exposure to CS gas in a controlled environment such as military boot camp, your best bet is to know ahead of time what to do and what not to do.

The first thing you'll want to do is follow your instincts and move away from the tear gas release point. If you're outside, that means shifting away from the billowing cloud of gas or a smoking canister. If you're lying on the ground, get up and move, because heavier-than-air CS gas will settle into a thick ground-level layer. If you're inside a building, get outside to fresh air as soon as possible. The less you're exposed to the irritant, the better off you'll be.


Next, let's worry about your eyes. Wash them with clean water as soon as possible and keep doing it for at least 15 minutes. If you wear contacts, take them out and don't stick them back in. If you wear glasses, take them off and wash them with soap and water before sliding them back on again. If medical aid is available, seek it out for additional washes and treatments that will help prevent serious eye damage.

Now let's turn to your breathing. Assuming you've made it to some fresh air, breathe in and out. Get as much fresh oxygen into your lungs and blood as possible. Medics may administer asthma medications to help with severe symptoms. If you've managed to ingest any of the irritant, drink lots of water and induce vomiting. Then seek medical attention.

Skin and clothing should get your attention next. If your garments are coated with CS, get them off as soon as possible. If you can, avoid removing clothing over your head; cut it off instead. You don't want any more of the irritant coming into contact with your face. Next, wash your body thoroughly with soap and water. If irritation persists, seek medical attention.

Finally, wash contaminated clothing separately from the rest of your laundry. Jewelry should be cleaned as well. Be sure to avoid detergents that contain chlorine bleach as they can react with CS to form even more toxic compounds.

Follow these steps, as advised by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine and The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and you should survive your tear gas encounter just fine. But let's hope you never have to find out.

Dive into the links below to learn even more about protests and chemical weapons.

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More Great Links
  • NYC Health: Tear Gas / Riot Control Agents
  • "2-CHLOROBENZALMALONONITRILE." National Library of Medicine HSDB Database. (Nov. 10, 2011)
  • "A Primer on CS Gas." PBS. (Nov. 10, 2011)
  • "Detailed Facts About Tear Agent O-Chlorobenzylidene Malononitrile (CS)." U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine.
  • Di Justo, Patrick. "What's Inside: Tear Gas." Wired Magazine. May 31, 2011. (Nov. 10, 2011)
  • "Israel investigates tear gas death of Palestinian protester." The Guardian. Jan 2, 2011. (Nov. 10, 2011)
  • McKinnley, Jesse. "Outrage Over Veteran Injured at 'Occupy' Protest." The New York Times. Oct, 27, 2011. (Nov. 11, 2011)
  • "Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare." Borden Institute Walter Reed Army Medical Center. 1997. (Nov. 10, 2011)
  • Palmer, Brian. "Why Isn't Tear Gas Illegal?" Slate Magazine. Feb. 11, 2010. (Nov. 10, 2011)
  • "Tear Gas / Riot Control Agents." The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 2011. (Nov. 10, 2011)
  • Volkin, Michael. "To The Gas Chambers!" Army Study Guide.(Nov. 10, 2011)