Can Bear Spray Kill a Human?

We already looked at whether or not you can safely use expired bear spray, but that’s not the only safety question that focuses around bear spray and its use. Since this aerosol is used to chase off even the biggest of bears, could it actually kill a person?

While very painful, bear spray cannot kill a normal human. In fact, bear spray is weaker in pure punch than conventional pepper spray. However, if a person has asthma or severe breathing issues then bear spray could cause a potentially fatal reaction if not treated in very rare circumstances.

Getting hit with bear spray is going to be extremely painful. Something you can confirm from idiot volunteers trying to become YouTube famous here, here, or the idiot thief here.

bear spray outline national park service
Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

So painful? Yes. Often effective in driving off problem people? Yes. Fatal? Unless something super weird happens, absolutely not.

Wait How Can Bear Spray Be Weaker Than Pepper Spray?

The big thing to remember here is what each is being used for. Pepper spray is designed specifically for self defense on other people at close range. Bear spray is designed to deal with a predator whose smell is 100x to 2000x greater than a person’s.

Meaning a little burning whiff up close for us is going to be fire incarnate to a bear’s sense of smell.

This government study confirms that a bear’s sense of smell on the conservative side is often 2100x more acute than a person’s. So all those videos of people going nuts and in pain from being hit with bear spray?

Imagine that being 210,000% more powerful. That’s crazy. It’s how bear spray doesn’t have to be as concentrated as pepper spray, which it isn’t. But pepper spray for self defense tends to be in small strong concentrations, while a large can of bear spray is designed to create a cloud of strong heat that will drive off bears with the stronger smell.

Is getting sprayed with bear spray a really bad idea?

Yes. You should avoid it if at all possible.

Is Bear Spray Dangerous to People?

Bear spray isn’t dangerous in the sense that it can be fatal. Because once again, unless there are previous lung or asthma issues that would cause any type of aerosol based irritant a serious problem, bear spray won’t be fatal to a person. Even in large amounts.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious consequences. This can include injuries that require medical attention, especially because of extreme irritation to the eyes, nose, and sinuses.

Just some of the common side effects you’ll experience from being sprayed with bear spray include:

  • Temporary blindness
  • Burning, watery, extremely irritated eyes
  • Painful breathing due to burning sensation
  • Inflammation from extended pain reaction
  • Extremely runny nose and burning feeling in sinuses

Bear Spray Legality Issues

First off, the obligatory legal disclaimer: We are not lawyers. We do not study law, we don’t give legal advice, and you should not take this as legal advice in any way, shape, or form.

This is for informational purposes, only!

That said, bear spray is not designed for self-defense against other people, and that means there can be some sticky legal definitions with spraying a person with this “pesticide.”

Now if someone is threatening to kill you or swinging a machete at you, it makes way more sense to spray someone in the face with bear spray as opposed to not defending yourself.

That being said, it’s worth talking to local law enforcement if you’re eyeing this as a self-defense option for more than giant furry predators on back country hikes.

Importance of EPA-Approved Bear Spray

This didn’t used to be a major problem, as there used to be only around four brands of bear spray that were out and available to the public. All four of these were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), confirming each had actually been tested and were approved for use in deterring bears.

However now there are many bear deterrent sprays out there being sold that are NOT EPA-approved. I don’t know what the legality of this is, but simply put, it’s a terrible idea.

Why EPA? Because bear spray is technically classified as a pesticide. You know, for those really giant pests known as bears that are capable of eating you.

You have four brands that are tried and true, a couple of which were made/inspired by individuals who survived bear attacks. These are the only bear sprays you want.

Those four EPA approved bear sprays are (links to up to date pricing on Amazon):

Bear way too close in National Park in Alaska.

First Hand Experiences Being Hit with Bear Spray

Weirdly, I have two friends who have been hit with bear spray. This probably has to do with me having lived in Alaska. These are from two separate instances.

My friend we’ll call John #1.

He was in theft prevention for a major sports store. One time while stopping a thief a struggle ensued and the shoplifter managed to pull the pin on a can of bear spray and hit the team.

In John #1’s case he said at first it was just mild burning, then like a really bad pepper it ramped up and become pain. Living, throbbing, burning pain. He said he was in pain and uncomfortable for hours afterwards, but not so much they would let him off of work.

So that was his experience with being a person hit with bear spray.

My friend we’ll call John #2 (I know, original). He was involved with geological camps in Alaska. In other words, he is one of those guys who helps set up a camp in the middle of nowhere Alaska hours of bush flight from, well, anywhere.

In his situation he was trying to use a can of bear spray that was dented and past expiration because as he understates dramatically: “In retrospect our employer was really f’ing shady.”

The can blew up upon use, creating a cloud that enveloped him and the bear. John #2 was still uneaten when his memory came back from the pain and blackout, so not fatal.

But not happy.

That’s two first person perspectives on getting hit by bear spray. So very much non-lethal. But very uncomfortable.

Can bear spray kills a human? No. Though it’s probably not too healthy, either.

In Conclusion

While bear spray is great for defense in the wild, it’s not something that should be consistently used for self-defense. Both for effectiveness and legal reasons.

On the plus side, if you’re hit with bear spray you’re in for a bad time but unless you have severe asthma or lung issues already, you’re in no danger of dying.