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Can ghost peppers kill you?

        Health | Food Safety

The bhut jolokia pepper – also known as ghost pepper or naga chili – can actually kill you, but it probably won't.
The bhut jolokia pepper – also known as ghost pepper or naga chili – can actually kill you, but it probably won't.
Aaron Joel Santos/Getty Images

Kendal loves jalapenos. He'll eat them raw or pickled, on just about any kind of food, any time of day. Each time Kendal chews a jalapeno pepper, he's releasing a spicy heat that measures 2,500 to 5,000 units on the Scoville heat scale. Just don't try to talk him into eating a ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia, which takes the heat to a whole new (and painful) level.

The Scoville scale is used to measure the heat of chili peppers and foods made with chili peppers, such as hot sauce. During the measurement process, capsaicin oil is extracted from a pepper and assigned an intensity rating that can range from 0 to millions of Scoville units. A green bell pepper, for example, has a Scoville rating of zero, while the ghost pepper tips the scale at more than 1 million units [source: Chilli World].

When you bite into a ghost pepper, your mouth feels heat in the most extreme way. Your tongue's receptors register the intensity of the pepper and relay that information to your brain, which interprets the pepper as a burning, pain-inducing interloper. This causes a chain reaction in your body as the capsaicin in the ghost pepper initiates widespread tissue inflammation and begins to wreak havoc on your nerve endings, dilating blood vessels and making you feel hot all over. Suddenly, you're too, too hot.

Your body is staging a violent protest. But to what extent? Could eating ghost peppers cause your demise?

Yes, you could die from ingesting ghost peppers. In fact, researchers have determined a 150-pound person would need to eat 3 pounds of dried and powdered capsaicin-rich peppers like the ghost pepper to die. They based their findings on results extrapolated from similar studies that measure capsaicin's toxic effects on animals [source: Glinsukon].

This doesn't mean you need toss your hot sauce and salsa. The good news for spice lovers is that your body would give up long before you reached a deadly level of capsaicin ingestion. The pain and inflammation would be too much to bear. Capsaicin is debilitating to the eyes and airways; that's why pepper spray is an effective defense weapon. At 2 million Scoville heat units, pepper spray can stop an attacker in his or her tracks. In India, the ghost pepper's country of origin, the Defence Research and Development Organization once even made grenades with the powerful Bhut Jolokia [source: Chilli World].

So why do some people seem to handle the heat of ghost peppers better than others? It's a nurtured ability, scientists believe. Over time, capsaicin kills pain receptors in the mouth, and, eventually, peppers that are excruciating to the uninitiated are simply a pleasant heat to others [source: Roach].