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Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal is sometimes used to help treat a drug overdose or a poisoning.

When you take activated charcoal, drugs and toxins can bind to it. This helps rid the body of unwanted substances.

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Charcoal is made from coal, wood, or other substances. It becomes "activated charcoal" when high temperatures combine with a gas or activating agent to expand its surface area.

Why do people take activated charcoal?

People take activated charcoal to manage a poisoning or overdose.

When used along with other treatments, activated charcoal may be effective for an acute poisoning. But it is not useful in some cases, including poisoning from:

  • Cyanide
  • Lithium
  • Alcohol
  • Iron tablets

It also is not used to treat poisons such as strong acids or bases.

With a poisoning, don't guess about the right thing to do. Call your local poison control center immediately. And get to an emergency room. You need to use activated charcoal as soon as possible if it is recommended.

Other less studied uses of activated charcoal include:

  • Treat a condition of pregnancy in which the normal flow of bile is affected (cholestasis)
  • Prevent gas
  • Reduce high cholesterol
  • Prevent a hangover

Early research about using activated charcoal to treat cholestasis of pregnancy is very limited. More studies are needed to prove its safety and effectiveness.

It's not clear whether activated charcoal helps improve gas and cholesterol. That's because the research results so far have been inconsistent.

As for hangover remedies with activated charcoal, there isn't really any evidence that it works at all.

The activated charcoal that is used to treat poisoning is a powder that is mixed with a liquid. Once mixed, it can be given as a drink or through a tube that has been placed through the mouth and into the stomach.

Activated charcoal is also available in tablet or capsule forms to treat gas. This form is not used to treat poisoning.

Doctors aren't sure about the best dosage of activated charcoal for treatment of overdose or poisoning. A common initial dosage for an adult is 50 to 100 grams. Repeated doses may help eliminate more unwanted substances. But more research is being done to see how effective this is and what doses should be used.

Children need lower doses depending on their weight and age.

Can you get activated charcoal naturally from foods?

Activated charcoal is a manufactured product. You cannot find it naturally in foods.

What are the risks of taking activated charcoal?

When used to treat a poisoning or overdose, activated charcoal is usually safe.

Side effects are more likely when it is used on a long-term basis to treat conditions like excess gas.

Side effects. When you take it by mouth, activated charcoal can cause:

In more serious cases, it can cause gastrointestinal blockages.

Risks. Do not combine activated charcoal with drugs used for constipation (cathartics such as sorbitol or magnesium citrate). This can cause electrolyte imbalances and other problems.

Interactions. Activated charcoal may reduce or prevent the absorption of certain drugs. This may include drugs such as:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Digoxin
  • Theophylline
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

Do not use activated charcoal as a supplement if you take these medications. Activated charcoal may also reduce absorption of certain nutrients.

The FDA does not regulate supplements.

Be sure to tell your doctor about any supplement you're taking, even if it's natural. That way, your doctor can check on any potential side effects or interactions with medications, foods, or other herbs and supplements. He or she can let you know if the supplement might increase your risks. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 07, 2012

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