What are capsaicin ointments?

Capsaicin ointments contain extract of red chili peppers from the jalapeno pepper plant. These extracts are rich in capsaicin, a substance that makes peppers burning hot. Capsaicin increases the release of, and then depletes, a messenger substance that transmits pain signals to the brain. Although it is quite difficult to conduct double-blind trials because of the burning sensation that capsaicin initially causes, there seems to be a consensus that applying capsaicin ointments to painful joints will help ease the pain. And, unlike counterirritant ointments, capsaicin preparations do not cause redness.

Capsaicin ointments, such as Zostrix, are typically applied to the skin directly over the painful joints two to four times per day. Maximal pain relief may require several weeks. For the first few days of use, capsaicin ointment will cause a burning sensation where it is applied. The burning sensation may increase when using warm water (i.e., in a bath or shower), if the cream is applied less than three or four times per day, if there is perspiration, or if a bandage is used over the cream.

It is extremely important to handle capsaicin ointments carefully and to wash your hands thoroughly -- especially your fingertips -- after each application to avoid spreading the cream onto sensitive areas. If capsaicin comes into contact with wounds, the mouth, the nose, other mucosal surfaces -- and especially the eyes -- it can cause very severe discomfort and pain although it leaves no damage.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.