Spice lovers, here's a hot sauce horror story to haunt your dreams: One man tore a hole in his esophagus after eating a burger spiked with ghost pepper, a recent case study from the Journal of Emergency Medicine noted.
After eating a hamburger topped with ghost pepper puree, the 47-year-old man experienced "severe pain and burning of his mouth," the study reported. Six glasses of water couldn't stop the heat — he started retching and vomiting, according to the study.
When the man reached his local emergency room, health professionals found a 2.5 centimeter tear in the man's esophagus. The hole had to be surgically repaired and the man couldn't leave the hospital for 23 days, at which time he still had a feeding tube in place.
A ghost pepper caused this man to be hospitalized for 23 days. 23 days! Now that's something to chew on the next time someone tries to goad you into going HAM with hot sauce or chili peppers.
Authors of the case study report noted, "spontaneous esophageal rupture ... is a rare condition encountered by emergency physicians, with a high mortality rate." In other words, a spicy meal isn't just uncomfortable going down or, um, coming out — it could be life-threatening in certain circumstances.
How did we get here? Ghost pepper, the chili that ignited the aforementioned medical ruckus, burst onto the international scene after Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, collected seeds from the chili plant when visiting India in 2001, Science Daily noted, explaining that the chili originated in Assam, India, and was previously used in local cooking.
2001 marked a spicy awakening for the rest of the world. The Guinness World Records deemed the ghost pepper (otherwise known as Bhut Jolokia chili) the hottest chili in the world in 2007. It was later dethroned by the Infinity chili.
Ghost pepper is 107 to 417 times hotter than a jalapeño, according to the pepper scale. It can rate over a million Scoville units (units that measure heat) — a habanero doesn't even register half a million Scoville units. (The California Reaper, which rates an average of 1.5 million Scoville Heat Units, now holds the world record for hottest chili.)
Over a decade since Bosland brought the ghost pepper seeds from India, the chili pepper is ubiquitous in the U.S. — Wendy's started serving ghost pepper fries, Popeye's served ghost pepper wings and White Castle served ghost pepper sliders. There are ghost pepper chips, ghost pepper salsa, and ghost pepper popcorn and hard candies. Most products use ghost pepper as seasoning and flavor, so they won't be as spicy as, say, eating entire peppers.
It's a spicy world and we're all living in it.
Luckily, the health benefits of spicy food seem to outweigh its risks.
Capsaicin, the compound that gives chilis their heat, is a topical treatment for psoriasis, chronic itchy skin, and studies in animals and cells reveal that the spicy compound can treat or prevent colon cancer, prostate cancer or leukemia, the Atlantic reported. Research also implies that spicy foods can suppress appetite and increase metabolism to a small extent, the New York Times noted. And one study found spicy foods could also help you live longer, Mic previously reported.
Do note: Capsaicin can irritate existing ulcers. And plenty of people take it too far when it comes to spice: Five middle schoolers needed to be taken to a hospital after eating ghost peppers, Fox News reported. In Edinburgh, Scotland, two people in a chili-eating competition needed to be hospitalized, the Telegraph reported.
In a sick twist, experiencing the burns-so-good pain of eating hot chilis makes our brains light up with pleasure.
"With the chili heat, your body produces endorphins that make you feel better," Bosland told the Atlantic. "You feel good when you eat it." The endorphins relieve pain by blocking pain signals in the brain, Helix, a blog from Northwestern University, noted.
Want to reap the health benefits of spicy food (and get that spicy high) without ripping a hole in your esophagus? Start by adding small amounts of pepper or red pepper flakes to your food, Serious Eats recommends. Once you start adding more spice, have cooling foods like yogurt, lime or cilantro on hand to hose down your mouth.