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Activated charcoal

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Activated charcoal is a black powder used for emergency treatment when a drug or poison has been ingested. It works by absorbing the poison or drug and reduces the amount being taken in by the body. It is given in an emergency setting and is most effective when taken within 1 hour of consuming the poison. It can be given later than 1 hour if a large amount of poison has been consumed or if the drug in question is released over an extended period. In severe poisoning, it can be given multiple times. However, you must seek medical attention immediately.

Who is it for?

This treatment can be used on people of all ages as it is not absorbed by the body, however, children under 12 years should be given a lower dose depending on their weight. It will only be effective if the poison has been taken by mouth.

How does it work?

Activated charcoal naturally attracts poisons and drugs, trapping them and preventing the body from absorbing as much of it. It should be given within 1 hour of poisoning for it to absorb as much of it as possible before the stomach contents move into the intestines, where the poison starts to be absorbed by the body.

Should anyone avoid taking it?

Activated charcoal can be used by anyone who has consumed a poison or drug by mouth. It is usually done in the hospital and should not slow down the process of seeking medical attention if started at home. Activated charcoal has little effect on corrosive poisons and may make it more difficult for doctors to perform a telescopic inspection of the stomach. It should also not be used if you have a known intestinal obstruction, as it may worsen the blockage.

Are there any side effects?

As with any medication, some people are bound to get some unwanted side effects. Some of the common ones include constipation, diarrhea, and headaches. Activated charcoal will turn your stool black, however, this is not harmful.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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