Why Do Chile Peppers Make People Cough?

nitrub/iStock via Getty Images
nitrub/iStock via Getty Images

In my house, we really like Mexican food. And Thai food. Oh, and Chinese food. We like all food, I guess, but that’s sort of beside the point. The point is that, because of our tastes, I wind up handling a lot of chile peppers (some people refer to hot peppers as chili peppers, but I prefer to use the Spanish spelling favored in Mexico and the American Southwest, so as not to confuse the peppers with that dish you often put them in). Sometimes these chiles are dried, or in the form of powders, pastes or oils. Often, though, they’re fresh, which means me cleaning and cutting them, which means me curling up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor coughing up a lung and crying like a little girl. Why does that happen?

Feel the Burn

The problem is that capsaicin, the compound that gives chiles their heat and livens up my fajitas and pad thai, doesn’t just work its tingly, burning magic on the tongue, but irritates also some of our other tissues and mucous membranes. Rubbing your eyes or scratching around your nostrils after handling chiles is always unpleasant, but you don’t need chile-to-skin contact to feel the burn. Washing, seeding, chopping and frying chiles can send capsaicin molecules flying into the air, where they can be inhaled and irritate and sensitize your lungs, leading to coughing fits, choking and discomfort while breathing.

Put Out the Fire

If cooking with chiles gets you all choked up, borrow this trick from pro cooks who work with them a lot: wear a damp bandana—or even a dish towel if you’re in a pinch—over your mouth and nose to cut down the amount of capsaicin that can make its way into your airways.

To get the stuff off your hands before you go touching your face, either wash with soap and water or rub some vegetable oil on your hands and then wash with water. Capsaicin is hydrophobic, so just water alone isn’t enough, but the soap and oil will both trap the molecules so they can be rinsed away.

Bonus Capsaicin Factoids for Your Next Cocktail Party

Capsaicin’s tendency to make people cough isn’t always a bad thing, and actually makes the compound pretty useful in medical research. In clinical studies of new cough suppressants, capsaicin is sometimes used to stimulate coughs for the medicine to be tested on.

The venom of Psalmopoeus cambridgei, a tarantula from the West Indies, contains three different peptides that target the same sensory receptors that respond to capsaicin, a really cool example of a plant and an animal using the same chemical methods for self-defense.

Have a big question you'd like Matt to tackle? Email him here, or ask him on Twitter.

Are Any of the Scientific Instruments Left on the Moon By the Apollo Astronauts Still Functional?

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

The retroreflectors left as part of the Apollo Lunar Ranging Experiment are still fully functional, though their reflective efficiency has diminished over the years.

This deterioration is actually now delivering valuable data. The deterioration has multiple causes including micrometeorite impacts and dust deposition on the reflector surface, and chemical degradation of the mirror surface on the underside—among other things.

As technology has advanced, ground station sensitivity has been repeatedly upgraded faster than the reflectors have deteriorated. As a result, measurements have gotten better, not worse, and measurements of the degradation itself have, among other things, lent support to the idea that static electric charge gives the moon an ephemeral periodic near-surface pseudo-atmosphere of electrically levitating dust.

No other Apollo experiments on the moon remain functional. All the missions except the first included experiment packages powered by radiothermoelectric generators (RTGs), which operated until they were ordered to shut down on September 30, 1977. This was done to save money, but also because by then the RTGs could no longer power the transmitters or any instruments, and the control room used to maintain contact was needed for other purposes.

Because of fears that some problem might force Apollo 11 to abort back to orbit soon after landing, Apollo 11 deployed a simplified experiment package including a solar-powered seismometer which failed after 21 days.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Makes a Hotel Breakfast 'Continental'?

Hotels often offer a complimentary pastry and fruit breakfast.
Hotels often offer a complimentary pastry and fruit breakfast.
tashka2000/iStock via Getty Images

The continental breakfast, which is typically made up of pastries, fruit, and coffee, is often advertised by hotels as a free perk for guests. But why is it called continental, and why don’t patrons get some eggs and bacon along with it?

The term dates back to 19th century Britain, where residents referred to mainland Europe as “the continent.” Breakfast in this region was usually something light, whereas an English or American breakfast incorporated meat, beans, and other “heavy” menu options.

American hotels that wanted to appeal to European travelers began advertising “continental breakfasts” as a kind of flashing neon sign to indicate guests wouldn’t be limited to American breakfast fare that they found unappealing. The strategy was ideal for hotels, which saved money by offering some muffins, fruit, and coffee and calling it a day.

That affordability as well as convenience—pastries and fruit are shelf-stable, requiring no heat or refrigeration to maintain food safety—is a big reason continental breakfasts have endured. It’s also a carryover from the hybrid model of hotel pricing, where American hotels typically folded the cost of meals into one bill and European hotels billed for food separately. By offering a continental breakfast, guests got the best of both worlds. And while Americans were initially aghast at the lack of sausages and pancakes on offer, they’ve since come around to the appeal of a muffin and some orange juice to get their travel day started.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER