Cayenne pepper is the fruit of Capsicum annuum, an annual plant from one to three feet high, inhabiting intertropical America, and supposed by some to be a native of the East Indies. It is cultivated in most civilized countries, and abundantly in the United States. Other species contribute to the Cayenne pepper of commerce. The fruit as grown in Cayenne, in South America, from which the medicine derived its common name, is said to be the product of Capsicum frutescens, and perhaps also of C. baccatum. Much of the powdered Cayenne pepper used in this country is brought from the W. Indies. Under the name of Liberia pepper, considerable quantities of a small fruit, about an inch in length, are imported from the coast of Africa. It is probably identical with that known in England as Guinea pepper, which Dr. Pereira ascertained to be the product of C. frutescens.


This fruit is a light shining berry, of various size and shape, and usually of a red or orange-red colour. The variety most employed in medicine is of a conical form, about as long as the finger, rounded at the base, and somewhat curved towards the smaller end. When cut open, it is seen to have two or three cells, containing flat whitish seeds, and a very loose medulla. When dried, it shrinks, lie-comes wrinkled, and assumes a darker colour.

As employed in medicine, capsicum is in the form of a powder, which is bright-red when fresh, but gradually fades, and in time loses almost all its colour. That imported is usually lighter coloured than our own, being brownish-yellow rather than red. It has a slight, peculiar, somewhat aromatic odour, and a bitterish, extremely pungent, burning, almost fiery taste, remaining long upon the tongue. It imparts its virtues to water, but more freely and largely to alcohol.

Active Principle. The virtues of capsicum probably reside in a peculiar retinoid matter, and, in a less degree, in a volatile principle on which its odour depends, but which does not appear to have been yet isolated. The capsicin of Braconnot contains the active matter of the fruit, but has been ascertained by Prof. Procter to be complex. The crystals, in which, as stated in the preceding edition of this work, the active principle was supposed to have been obtained, have proved, on further examination, to have been a salt of lead, from the acetate of that metal used in the process. From the most recent experiments it would appear that the activity of capsicum resides in a peculiar oleaginous liquid substance, which, however, is itself complex, consisting probably, of a bland fixed oil, and an acrid resinoid principle, which has not yet been procured in a pure state. For this principle when obtained uncombined, the name of capsicin should be reserved.*

Effects on the System

Cayenne pepper produces a sensation of heat in the stomach, diffuses a general glow over the system, and somewhat excites the pulse. In ordinary doses, it has no observable effect whatever on the brain, or general nervous system. Locally it is powerfully stimulating, more so proportionably than in its operation upon the circulation, and in this respect approaches the aromatics. On the skin it acts as a rubefacient. When taken into the stomach in excessive doses, it is capable of producing gastro-intestinal inflammation, with violent burning pain, vomiting, and purging; and is said to have caused vertigo and a sort of intoxication, but on insufficient authority. Any cerebral symptoms it produces are probably secondary and sympathetic. Used too largely and too long as a condiment, it may give rise to chronic irritation or secondary debility of stomach, and, by an over-stimulation of the blood-making functions, may favour the development of gout.

Therapeutic application. The medicine may be used for the general purposes of the arterial stimulants, though less excitant to the circulation than others of the class. It has been employed as a safe stimulant in the cold stage of pernicious fever, and occasionally, as an adjuvant to other stimulants, in low typhoid fevers, when the stomach has been torpid, and the patient troubled with flatulence. In the low and malignant forms of scarlet fever, it has been much and advantageously employed; and it may be considered as among the best stimulants in that affection.

* See U. S. Dispensatory (12th ed , p. 208); and a paper by Mr. David Preston, in the American Journal of Pharmacy (May, 1865, p. 161).

I have myself given it frequently, and been satisfied of its beneficial effects. It is used both internally, and as a gargle. In the latter mode of application, I know nothing better adapted to that condition of the fauces, in which the mucous membrane has assumed a dark-red colour, and has begun to slough, or appears to be on the point of doing so. But it has also seemed to me useful in almost all varieties of the sore-throat of scarlatina, in which, so far from irritating, it often soothes; at least patients have frequently assured me that, though it burned their mouth in its passage, it had quite a contrary effect upon the fauces, which it greatly relieved.

In the early stage of scarlet fever, there is sometimes great backwardness in the appearance of the eruption. A few purplish points may serve to indicate the nature of the case, and the vain struggle of the system to throw out the irritation upon the surface. Along with this condition there may be coma, or a disposition to it, with an appearance of general prostration. In such cases, Cayenne pepper may be freely used, both internally, in connection with other stimulants, and outwardly as a rubefacient.

It has been used, as a pervading stimulant of the capillaries, in old cases of palsy; and has been highly recommended in uterine hemorrhage. in doses of from five to ten grains, repeated every ten minutes until the hemorrhage ceases. (Brock, Assoc. Med. Journ., June, 1854, p. 582).

In the Dublin Medical Press, Dr. Lyons recommends capsicum very highly in the early or forming stage of delirium tremens, stating that a single dose of twenty grains will usually cut short the disease; though. in persons of extremely intemperate habits, it may be necessary to repeat the dose three or four times. (Med. Record, Aug. 1, 1866, p. 260).

As a local stimulant, it has been much employed in atonic states of the stomach, usually in connection with other medicines, to the action of which it is supposed to render that organ more sensible. The same influence is also extended to the bowels. It has been thought to be specially useful, in this way, in drunkards, whose stomachs have lost their excitability under the influence of strong drink. It has been given. with this object, along with sulphate of quinia in intermittent, with the simple bitters in dyspepsia, and with the cathartics in flatulence and constipation. It has also been specially recommended in the dyspepsia of gouty persons, and in convalescence from delirium tremens. Taken in the dose of a teaspoonful, at the very commencement of sea-sickness, it is said sometimes to set aside that affection. Much efficiency has also been recently claimed for it in hemorrhoidal tumours, given to an amount of from ten grains to two scruples in the course of the day. (Ann. de Therap., 1858, p. 90).

Topically, it is occasionally employed as a gargle at the commencement of ordinary angina, as a direct application in relaxation and elongation of the uvula, and externally as an active rubefacient.


The dose of the powder is from five to ten grains, to be repeated, in acute cases, every hour or two, in chronic cases, three or four times a day. The powder may also be used locally as a cataplasm, or as an application to the fauces. In young children, who cannot gargle, I have found much advantage, when the use of capsicum in this way was indicated, as in the gangrenous condition of the fauces in scarlet fever or malignant sore-throat, from mixing the powder with water into a sort of semifluid paste, and diffusing this over the fauces, several times a day, by means of a camel's-hair brush, or some similar implement. Should the child swallow a portion, it will be all the better. In the same way, it may be applied to the elongated uvula.

The medicine is sometimes used also in the form of infusion (Infu-sum Capsici, U. S.), which is made in the proportion of two drachms to eight fluidounces of boiling water, and given in the dose of half a fluid-ounce. In the same form, it may be employed as a gargle; but, for ordinary cases of sore-throat, it should be diluted with from four to eight parts of water.

The formula for the infusion of Dr. Stephens, which has been much used in scarlet fever, both internally and as a gargle, directs that two tablespoonfuls of the powder, and a tablespoonful of common salt, should be macerated for an hour in a pint of liquid consisting of equal parts of boiling-hot water and vinegar. This is to be strained, and given in the dose of a tablespoonful every half hour.

The officinal Tincture (Tinctura Capsici, U. S.) may be used internally in the dose of one or two fluidrachms; as a gargle, mixed with water or rose-water in the proportion of half a fluidounce to eight fluid-ounces; and externally, hot and undiluted, as a rubefacient. It may also be applied of full strength, by means of a camel's-hair pencil, to the relaxed uvula.