People are chewing the hottest gum on earth—and winding up in the ER

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published June 9, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A TikTok challenge in which people try to chew and blow bubbles with gum made from extremely spicy Capsicum oleoresin (OC) has made the rounds online.

  • Recently, the challenge sent 10 Massachusetts children to the hospital. Experts say that OC can cause significant irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat—and that it can even impact breathing. 

  • Most patients will be okay if exposed, but MDs suggest monitoring patients’ breathing and managing uncomfortable symptoms.

Of the many questionable TikTok challenges out there, the CaJohns Trouble Bubble Bubble Gum challenge may be one of the more painful, and people are coming to the ER because of it.

The challenge requires people to chew a piece of the uber-spicy gum and blow a bubble with it—without spitting it out. This gum is so unique—and potentially problematic—because it contains Capsicum oleoresin (OC) or chili pepper extract. 

According to Kelly Johnson-Arbor, medical toxicology physician and medical director at National Capital Poison Center, OC is a compound present in the Capsicum genus, which includes chili peppers. “OC is a concentrated extract that is the active ingredient in pepper spray. It is known as a ‘lacrimator’ due to its ability to cause significant irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.” In fact, this gum, in particular, offers up to 16 million Scoville heat units (SHU), according to retailer League of Fire.  

The SHU scale measures a pepper product’s pungency values. According to Analyst, “When you bite into a chile pepper or eat food containing chile (chili), one might feel heat or other associated feelings, some good such as the release of endorphins, and some bad. The heat, or pungency, and related feelings from eating chile peppers are the result of their chemical composition, i.e., the concentrations of capsaicinoids.” According to Chili Pepper Madness, the highest Scoville unit comes in at 15 to 16 million Scoville units.[][][] 

In fact, League of Fire describes the gum as “The hottest bubble gum on planet earth,” in addition to listing several disclaimers, warning certain populations not to try the gum. These include people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people with gastrointestinal problems, people with allergies to chili or capsaicin, or people with cardiac conditions, among others.

“When OC gets into the eyes…it causes eye pain, eye redness, tearing, and eye swelling,” Johnson-Arbor says. “When inhaled, OC causes a stinging sensation in the chest and lungs, difficulty breathing, coughing, and sore throat. If a person exposed to OC swallows their saliva, the saliva can cause stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal symptoms. On the skin, OC can cause burning, stinging, and redness,” she adds.

Many people are trying the challenge despite the potential side effects. One creator under the name @big_led73 documented his experience on camera, saying the challenge was “really, really tough,” as he developed the hiccups and tears formed in his eyes. “For, like, 30 minutes afterwards, I thought I was dying….I don’t think anybody should do that. That’s painful,” he continued. Unsurprisingly, some TikTok users couldn’t even finish the challenge. 

Scoville challenges may have gained popularity due to Hot Ones, a popular YouTube series featuring celebrities trying chicken wings topped with progressively hotter hot sauces. 

Not everyone thinks that braving the pungent heat is entertaining or fun. In fact, the TikTok challenge sent 10 elementary school children in Orange, Massachusetts, to the hospital, according to news reports. After one student brought a pack of the gum to Dexter Park School, others tried it, too—aiming to blow a bubble while enduring the heat of the gum.[] 

The Washington Times reported that both parents and ambulances brought the kids to the hospital, with some complaining of a “burning sensation in their mouths and throats, and felt stomach pain as well.” Other students who touched the gum also suffered skin and eye irritation. One who’d merely smelled the gum was hospitalized; afterward, she had red and swollen cheeks. 

“The thing that we worry about is students with underlying medical conditions, such as asthma or pre-existing respiratory conditions. When they inhale something like that, it can exacerbate their current medical condition,” local fire chief James Young Jr. told ABC affiliate WGGB-TV, reports the Washington Times

How can physicians inform patients about oleoresin capsicum and the TikTok challenge? 

It seems there is no end to the potentially harmful internet challenges kids and teens are trying these days,” says Sergio Alvarez, MD, COO of Mia Aesthetics in Miami, FL. 

That said, physicians should know how to treat the symptoms of exposure to OC. If you run into a situation in which the TikTok challenge has gone awry, Alvarez recommends modulating the treatment based on whether the exposure was internal or external. “External treatment involves flushing the eyes with lots of warm water or with a saline solution. Cool compresses can also help. Skin exposed to OC can be flushed with water, vegetable oil, or a liquid antacid.” 

For internal exposure, physicians should never give patients mint-flavored antacid, Alvarez notes. An easy way to calm the tongue down? “Small sips of milk or bites of ice cream can also be helpful if the OC was ingested,” he adds. 

He says physicians should also monitor patients’ breathing: “Supply oxygen and provide inhalants or other medications to keep [their] airway open if necessary….IV medications [can] help alleviate pain and discomfort,” he notes.

Additionally, OC could create inflammation within the body. “In some people, this inflammatory response can exacerbate the harm caused by OC and necessitate further treatment or prolong discomfort,” Alvarez says. 

That said, you should know that if your patient reacts badly to the gum, their prognosis is likely good. “Most people recover from OC exposure in about 30 minutes without medical intervention,” Alvarez says. In fact, the Hong Kong Medical Journal states that OC “does not cause life-threatening clinical effects in the majority of exposed individuals.”[]

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