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Can tear gas help spread COVID-19?

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Tear gas and other chemical irritants can cause people to cough, sneeze, and take off their face masks, which can increase the spread of COVID-19. This is the case both for people who have symptoms of the virus and those who might not have any symptoms and don't know they are sick. The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads primarily through droplets that are emitted when people exhale, cough, or spit. Tear gas can cause people to cough or scream loudly, which could carry the virus particles much farther than 6 feet (2m) and infect others around them. In addition to inducing coughing, tear gas has also been linked to increased susceptibility to infection in the respiratory tract as well as increased pain and inflammation. A 2014 study found that exposure to tear gas contributed to a significantly higher risk of acute respiratory illnesses (sudden and serious respiratory illnesses). More than 1200 infectious disease and public health professionals have signed a petition opposing the use of tear gas and other respiratory irritants during this pandemic.

This article was published on
June 22, 2020

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What our experts say

Tear gas and other chemical irritants can cause people to cough, sneeze, and take off their face masks, which can increase the spread of COVID-19. This is the case both for people who have symptoms of the virus and those who might not have any symptoms and don't know they are sick. The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads primarily through droplets that are emitted when people exhale, cough, or spit. Tear gas can cause people to cough or scream loudly, which could carry the virus particles much farther than 6 feet (2m) and infect others around them. In addition to inducing coughing, tear gas has also been linked to increased susceptibility to infection in the respiratory tract as well as increased pain and inflammation. A 2014 study found that exposure to tear gas contributed to a significantly higher risk of acute respiratory illnesses (sudden and serious respiratory illnesses). More than 1200 infectious disease and public health professionals have signed a petition opposing the use of tear gas and other respiratory irritants during this pandemic.

Context and background

Tear gas refers to a group of chemical irritants that are designed to irritate mucous membranes, and cause people to tear, cough, and sneeze. It is used as a method of crowd dispersal during protests. During the recent protests in the United States in the wake of George Floyd's death, police departments across the country used tear gas widely in an effort to disperse crowds. This was widely criticized as a counter-productive and dangerous means of crowd dispersal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resources

1. o-Chlorobenzylidene Malononitrile (CS Riot Control Agent) Associated Acute Respiratory Illnesses in a U.S. Army Basic Combat Training Cohort ([Military Medicine)](https://academic.oup.com/milmed/article/179/7/793/4259353) 2. Tear Gas (Pepper Spray) Toxicity ([PubMed](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544263/)) 3. Teargas and pepper spray will accelerate spread of Covid-19, doctors warn ([The Guardian](https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/06/teargas-coronavirus-george-floyd-protests)) 4. Open letter advocating for an anti-racist public health response to demonstrations against systemic injustice occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic ([Open Letter](https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Jyfn4Wd2i6bRi12ePghMHtX3ys1b7K1A/view))

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