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The uses of Activated Charcoal in Medicine

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The primary purpose of activated charcoal as a medicine is as a detoxifying measure after some type of poison has been swallowed.  Generally it’s 60% effective in absorbing chemicals from the intestinal tract. The action begins in the stomach and continues all along the small and large intestines.

Effectiveness of charcoal in detoxification depends on several factors: Type of toxin being treated; amount and type of charcoal ingested; time between toxin being ingested and charcoal treatment; the contents of the gastric secretions of the stomach and intestines and the overall efficiency of the system. 

Charcoal has no effect on chemicals that have already been absorbed but on those that are still in the intestines. This black liquid medicine needs to be given soon after ingestion of the poison; otherwise much of its effectiveness will be gone. Activated charcoal is an odorless, tasteless, nontoxic fine black powder that given orally and work much like a charcoal water filtering device. The surface unit of both uses, human and the filtering device, is greater than an ordinary chunk of charcoal that’s used in backyard grills.

The stomach is first pumped and then charcoal is usually given as a precaution against the harmful effect of the poison that may have already passed on to the intestines. Activated charcoal works by absorption. Absorption means that atoms and molecules of the poison or the substance being absorbed moves from a liquid or a gas to a solid substance. In this situation the poison is attracted to the solid surface of the minute bits of charcoal and moves on out through the digestive canal and is eliminated. To hasten this process sorbitol—a form of laxative— is usually added to charcoal during its process to hasten the elimination process.  

 Emedicine Health in explaining the effectiveness of the small particles of charcoal has this to say: ” To put this in perspective, one standard 50-gram dose of activated charcoal has the surface area of 10 football fields.” By that is meant the charcoal bits absorbs through all facets of its sides and corners. Larger chunks of charcoal would be far less effective in absorbing than these smaller bits. 

Contraindications of use

Some chemical are not attracted to charcoal and will not bind effectively. These are: Lithium that is used to calm Bipolar disorders; strong acids and bases; metals and inorganic minerals—iron, sodium, lead, arsenic, iodine, fluorine, boric acid, alcohol and hydrocarbons. Likewise overuse is a possibility. Charcoal can also remove vitamins, minerals and other nutrients necessary for health and maintenance. Therefore it’s nearly always a one or two time medicine given within an hour, preferably, after a poison drug has been swallowed.

Some drugs may have their own particular antidote preparation and this is usually preferred over activated charcoal. And another contraindication is not being used when caustic chemicals have been swallowed. There may be damage to mucous linings of the esophagus, stomach and intestine and an endoscopy may be needed. The charcoal will block the vision of the x-ray.

How is medicinal charcoal made?

Coconut shells are partially burned without oxygen and then ground into a fine powder. This is nothing more than a safe vegetative form of carbon, a chemical found in all living matter. Some of its more important and common uses have been to relieve trapped gas in the lower intestinal tract. Yet it is far more used in hospital emergency rooms to counteract the ingestion of poison.  


This drug, although perfectly safe when used for the purpose intended, is not an at home remedy. If taken at home it should be at the advice of a professional. As a safety measure the phone number (1-800-222-1222) of the US poison control center should be near the phone or on the refrigerator door, or better still, memorized.

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