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Ghost Pepper-Eating Contest Leaves SF Man With Hole In Esophagus

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF / CBS NEWS) -- A Bay Area man who ate one of the world's hottest peppers landed himself in the hospital with a 1-inch hole in his esophagus that nearly killed him.

The frightening incident occurred after the man ate a paste made from "ghost peppers," a type of pepper so hot it's broken world records.

David Winsberg, who owns Happy Quail Farms, is an expert on peppers and sells some pretty hot habaneros at a local farmer's market, but he knows better than to sell ghost peppers. "Almost everybody asks, but I ask, do you eat them?" he laughs. "If you watch some idiot on YouTube die eating them, that's not my idea of fun."

But that doesn't keep others from trying. YouTube is full of videos of people taking up the challenge to eat one and most, if not all, have frightening reactions. The heat of the peppers is measured on what's called the "Scoville scale." A jalapeño registers 5,000 units, while the ghost pepper has a million.

"You think you're gonna die," said Winsberg. "Your throat starts to close up so I think part of the endorphin rush is when you realize, 'Whew! I'm alive still! I survived!'"

But one man almost didn't. Doctors at UCSF Medical Center are reporting a case of a 47-year-old man who came to the emergency room with severe abdominal and chest pain followed by "violent retching and vomiting after eating ghost peppers as part of a contest." The man ate a hamburger with a ghost pepper puree that was so hot, it burned a hole in his esophagus, which then collapsed one of his lungs. He spent 23 days in the hospital and went home with a tube down his stomach.

Just when you think things have gone about as far as they can, guess again.

"Now the hottest one is called the 'Carolina Reaper,' which is supposed to be 10 million units, so they've gone almost a factor of 10 hotter," said Winsberg.

Zandra Baldwin is an amateur chili chef who said she has only once tried the ghost pepper. "I had to down about a carton of milk afterwards. In fact it broke my 'never drinking milk,' policy," she said.

After hearing what happened to the UCSF patient, she hopes cooler heads will prevail. "I also work in medicine so the idea of doing that to yourself is just insanity, but it's job security too," she jokes.

Ironically, hot peppers are supposed to be good for a sore throat. The chemical that produces heat also attracts blood to the tissue and that can help fight infection.

The case report is published in The Journal of Emergency Medicine.

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