Can spicy foods kill you?

(NEXSTAR) — A teenager in Massachusetts died suddenly last week after allegedly eating an extremely spicy tortilla chip — and his family is convinced the chip contributed to his death.

Harris Wolobah, 14, had reportedly eaten the chip — which is sold individually and comes in a box shaped like a coffin — during the school day on Sept. 1, according to his mother. After becoming ill with a stomach ache, he was sent to the school nurse’s office, and then home, where he began to feel better, she told Boston’s WBTS.

That afternoon, however, Wolobah lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital shortly afterward.

Paqui, the company that makes the chip, has since decided to pull the product from store shelves. But the brand noted in an online statement that its spiciest chip — marketed as a “One Chip Challenge” for daring consumers — is not intended for children or people with sensitivities to spicy foods.

“The Paqui One Chip Challenge is intended for adults only, with clear and prominent labeling highlighting the chip is not for children or anyone sensitive to spicy foods or who has food allergies, is pregnant or has underlying health conditions,” the statement reads, in part.

A package containing Paqui’s “One Chip Challenge” tortilla chip is seen on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steve LeBlanc)
A package containing Paqui’s “One Chip Challenge” tortilla chip is seen on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steve LeBlanc)

In addition, a warning posted to Paqui’s website (and also on the coffin-shaped package) advises anyone with adverse reactions to seek out a healthcare provider if they experience “difficulty breathing, fainting or extended nausea.”

Can spicy foods cause death?

Despite the lack of any warning on Paqui’s chips concerning possible death, experts say spicy foods can indeed kill, but usually only under certain specific circumstances.

“The hottest peppers, like ghost peppers, can kill you. But it’s highly unlikely,” Allan Capin, MD, an urgent-care physician at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center in Florida, said in an article published by Cleveland Clinic earlier this year. Triggering any kind of “deadly reaction” would generally require someone to consume around 1/50th of their weight in such peppers, Capin said. (The chip at the center of Paqui’s One Chip Challenge is dusted in seasoning made from Carolina Reaper and Naga Viper peppers, both of which are believed to be significantly spicier than ghost peppers.)

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Such deaths could likely be the result of a fatal arrhythmia, caused when something interrupts the electrical signals that regulate the heartbeat, according to Dr. Peter Chai, an associate professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“It’s possible eating these chips with high concentration of capsaicin could cause death,” Chai told the Associated Press, capsaicin being the chemical compound in chili peppers responsible for causing irritation to the eyes, lips and tongue (among other parts of the body).

“It would really depend on the amount of capsaicin that an individual was exposed to,” Chai added.

What are the dangers of eating spicy foods?

While death from eating spicy peppers is thought to be rare, other adverse reactions are much more common.

Edwin McDonald, MD, a gastroenterologist with the University of Chicago’s Department of Medicine, outlined the possible dangers of ingesting too much capsaicin in a 2018 article published by the school. He highlighted abdominal pain or gastrointestinal discomfort and said people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis could be more at risk of symptoms. People with anal fissures also experience more pain and discomfort after digesting capsacin-heavy peppers, he noted, citing a 2008 study.

Side effects from overconsumption of extremely spicy foods can also lead to vomiting, and, in at least one case documented by the Journal of Emergency Medicine, such violent vomiting that a patient ruptured their esophagus.

Dr. Allan, in his Cleveland Clinic article, added that spicy foods can also cause chest pain and headaches, but surprisingly not ulcers, which can actually be prevented by capsaicin, as studies have shown.

Capsaicin has also been shown to help regulate weight and reduce cancer risk, Allan noted.

The health benefits of chili pepper, however, likely come as no consolation to Wolobah’s family and teachers, who have called for the Paqui chips to be banned.

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“The chip is responsible in our eyes for whatever took place because he was a healthy kid,” Douglas Hill, the organizer of a basketball league in which Wolobah played, told the Associated Press.

“The conversation now is about the chip, but there will be other challenges coming, and we want to make sure children know they shouldn’t be participating in anything that could put them in harm’s way.”

Authorities in Massachusetts are currently investigating Wolobah’s death. The results of an autopsy are pending, officials said.

Paqui has not responded to Nexstar’s request for comment on the Wolobah family’s allegations. The company is currently offering refunds for consumers who purchased the One Chip Challenge product.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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