What Is Activated Charcoal?
It was 1831. In front of his distinguished colleagues at the French Academy of Medicine, Professor Touery drank a lethal dose of strychnine and lived to tell the tale. He had combined the deadly poison with activated charcoal.
That’s how powerful activated charcoal is as an emergency decontaminant in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the stomach and intestines. Activated charcoal is considered to be the most effective single agent available. It is used after a person swallows or absorbs almost any toxic drug or chemical.
- Activated charcoal is estimated to reduce absorption of poisonous substances nearly to 60%.
- It works by binding (adsorbing) chemicals, thus reducing their toxicity (poisonous nature), through the entire length of the stomach and small and large intestines (GI tract).
- Activated charcoal itself is a fine, black powder that is odorless, tasteless, and nontoxic.
- Activated charcoal is often given after the stomach is pumped (gastric lavage). Gastric lavage is only effective immediately after swallowing a toxic substance (within about one-half hour) and does not have effects that reach beyond the stomach as activated charcoal does.
How Activated Charcoal Works
Activated charcoal absorbs a wide variety of drugs and chemicals. Adsorption is a process in which atoms and molecules move from a bulk phase (such as a solid, liquid, or gas) onto a solid or liquid surface. In other words, the toxic substance attaches to the surface of the charcoal. Because charcoal is not “digested,” it stays inside the GI tract and eliminates the toxin when the person has a bowel movement.
- This mechanism of action should not be confused with absorption. Absorption occurs when a substance passes into or through a tissue, like water passing into a sponge. Once the chemical or drug has been absorbed by the GI tract, activated charcoal can no longer retrieve the toxic ingestion. It will only attach to substances that are still inside the stomach or intestines.
- The charcoal is “activated” because it is produced to have a very fine particle size. This increases the overall surface area and adsorptive capacity of the charcoal. It is produced by adding acid and steam to carbonaceous materials such as wood, coal, rye starch, or coconut shells. To put this in perspective, one standard 50-gram dose of activated charcoal has the surface area of 10 football fields.
- Activated charcoal is often combined with sorbitol (a substance that stimulates the bowels to move, like a laxative) to shorten the amount of time to move through the system and reduce the possibility of constipation. However, to avoid adverse effects, sorbitol is not given with every dose of activated charcoal.
- All efforts should be made to reduce adsorption of severely toxic substances, as activated charcoal does not bind as well with these substances:
- Lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid), strong acids and bases, metals and inorganic minerals such as sodium, iron, lead, arsenic, iodine, fluorine, and boric acid.
- Alcohol (such as ethanol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, glycols, and acetone)
- Hydrocarbons (such as petroleum distillates and plant hydrocarbons such as pine oil)
- Activated charcoal does not irritate the mucous membranes of the GI system. In addition to adsorption of toxins, activated charcoal also adsorbs food nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. However, this short-term effect is not a concern when activated charcoal is used to treat poisoning.
How Activated Charcoal Is Given
Activated charcoal may be given by mouth to someone who is awake and alert. It is a black liquid drink.
- If the person vomits the drink, another dose will be given through a nasogastric or orogastric tube (a tube inserted through the nose or mouth, down the esophagus and into the stomach).
- If the person is unconscious (or nearly so), an endotracheal intubation (a procedure in which a tube is inserted through the mouth down into the trachea) may be necessary. This allows oxygen to be delivered and helps protect the airway and lungs from gastric content, which minimizes the risk of the person vomiting and choking.
- Activated charcoal is usually given by a doctor. It is not a substance to be used at home. Doctors determine the dose or amount of charcoal to give based on the patient’s weight (with special doses for children) and on how much poison was swallowed. There are some doctors who will prescribe charcoal for emergency use in the home. This should only be done under the direct guidance of the doctor or poison control center.
- The doctor also determines when and if additional doses are given by monitoring blood levels of the poison. Other symptoms the doctor monitors are nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, and severe heart problems. Multiple doses of activated charcoal can be given if someone swallowed large doses of long-acting, sustained release medications.
- In some cases, if blood levels of the poison remain too high, the doctor may recommend kidney dialysis. Dialysis may be the best way to remove the toxin from the bloodstream.
When Not to Use Activated Charcoal
- Activated charcoal will not be given to people with an obstruction of the intestines or if the person swallowed a corrosive agent, such as a strong acid or alkali.
- Strong acids may “burn” through the lining of the GI tract. Doctors will need to look at the lining with an endoscope – a special instrument designed to look inside the stomach. Activated charcoal is not to be used with this type of poison because it is difficult to see the lining of the GI tract with the scope after charcoal is given.
- Activated charcoal can cause intestinal problems such as constipation, or it can create clumps of foreign material. This situation can be prevented by giving a laxative such as sorbitol to the patient, however, repeated doses with sorbitol may cause excessive diarrhea, dehydration, and chemical imbalance.
- If the patient is fructose intolerant, family members should notify the treating doctor, and sorbitol will not be given with the activated charcoal. Sorbitol is a sugar substitute that acts as a laxative to move the charcoal through the system. Infants younger than one year of age year should not be given sorbitol because it may cause excessive fluid losses.
- If an antidote to a specific type of drug poisoning is given, then the doctor may not give activated charcoal because the drug given as treatment will also be adsorbed. A classic example is an acetaminophen (Tylenol overdose) in which there is a clearly established antidote with acetylcysteine (Mucomyst).
Got Gas? Drinking One Cup of Activated Charcoal Lemonade Could Help Relieve Your Symptoms
Activated charcoal is the new “it” ingredient that you see in everything from toothpaste to skin care to beverages.
But what is activated charcoal and why should you be drinking it?
Activated charcoal is a type of porous charcoal that’s processed (or “activated”) at very high temperatures. This type of charcoal can be made from bone char, coconut shells, or coal, to name a few.
Since activated charcoal is porous and negatively charged, there are suggestions that it may help to trap toxins and chemicals in the stomach before the body has a chance to absorb them. This is why charcoal drinks are commonly used for detoxes and emergency treatmentsTrusted Source like drug overdoses. In fact, activated charcoal has been a poison antidote since the 1800s.
It’s important to note that charcoal can interfere with the body’s absorption process. Charcoal shouldn’t be consumed every day or less than 90 minutes before or after nutrient-dense meals, prescription medications, or vitamins.
That said, if you do intend to take activated charcoal, it’s been linked to a number of health benefits.
In one small older studyTrusted Source that looked at participants from America and India, activated charcoal was found to reduce bloating and abdominal cramps associated with gas.
It’s also been linked to treating diarrhea (though it was noted in one study that further research is necessary), promoting kidney function, and lowering cholesterol levels, as seen in another older studyTrusted Source.
However, many of these studies date back to the 1980s. More recent research is needed to verify these benefits.
Pay attention to activated charcoal dosing. A very small amount, less than 1/4 teaspoon, goes a long way. Activated charcoal — either as part of the recipe noted below or 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon mixed with one cup of water — should not be consumed more than every other day.
Activated Charcoal Lemonade
Star Ingredient: Activated charcoal
- 1/4 tsp. food-grade activated charcoal
- 4 cups cold filtered water
- 2 lemons, juiced
- 2–4 tbsp. honey, agave, or maple syrup
- Stir the charcoal, water, lemon juice, and sweetener of choice together in a pitcher until combined.
- Serve over ice.
- This recipe can be kept in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Vomiting is a reported side effect when too much charcoal is consumed. Make sure not to drink charcoal too close to taking medications or eating fruits and vegetables, as this may interfere with the absorption process. DO NOT ingest activated charcoal every day.
Research & Studies:
- In a 2017 review of recent studies on the use of activated charcoal for diarrhea, researchers concluded that it might be able to prevent bacteria and drugs that can cause diarrhea from being absorbed into the body by trapping them on its porous, textured surface.
- Activated charcoal powder is thought to be able to disrupt intestinal gas, although researchers still do not understand how liquids and gases trapped in the intestine can easily pass through the millions of tiny holes in activated charcoal, and this process may neutralize them.In a 2012 study, a small sample of people with a history of excessive gas in their intestines took 448 milligrams (mg) of activated charcoal three times a day for 2 days before having intestinal ultrasound examinations. They also took another 672 mg on the morning of the exam. The study showed that medical examiners were better able to see certain parts of some of the organs they intended to identify with the ultrasound whereas intestinal gas would have obscured these before the treatment.