What is it?
Orally, activated charcoal is used to treat poisonings, reduce phenytoin levels, reduce intestinal gas (flatulence), lower cholesterol levels, prevent diarrhea caused by the cancer drug irinotecan, reduce phosphate levels in dialysis, prevent hangover, calm upset stomach and treat bile flow problems (cholestasis) during pregnancy. Activated charcoal is also used topically in bandages for helping heal wounds and to improve the appearance of skin.
How effective is it?
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness based on scientific evidence according to the following scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective, and Insufficient Evidence to Rate.
The effectiveness ratings for ACTIVATED CHARCOAL are as follows:
Possibly effective for...
- Poisoning. Activated charcoal is useful for trapping chemicals to stop some types of poisoning when used as part of standard treatment. Activated charcoal should be given within 1 hour after a poison has been ingested. It does not seem to be beneficial if given for 2 or more hours after some types of poisoning.
Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for...
- Lowering cholesterol levels. So far, research studies don’t agree about the effectiveness of taking activated charcoal by mouth to lower cholesterol levels in the blood.
- Diarrhea caused by the cancer drug irinotecan. Irinotecan is a cancer drug known to cause diarrhea. Early research shows that taking activated charcoal during treatment with irinotecan decreases diarrhea, including severe diarrhea, in children taking this drug.
- Decreasing gas (flatulence). Some studies show that activated charcoal is effective in reducing intestinal gas, but other studies don’t agree. It’s too early to come to a conclusion on this.
- Indigestion. Some early research shows that taking certain combination products containing activated charcoal and simethicone, with or without magnesium oxide, can reduce pain, bloating, and feelings of fullness in people with indigestion. It’s unclear if taking activated charcoal by itself will help.
- Treating reduced bile flow (cholestasis) during pregnancy. Taking activated charcoal by mouth seems to help treat cholestasis in pregnancy, according to some early research reports.
- Lowering phophate levels in people on dialysis. Early research shows that taking activated charcoal daily for 24 weeks might reduce phosphate levels in people on hemodialysis who have high phosphate levels.
- Preventing hangover. Activated charcoal is included in some hangover remedies, but some experts are skeptical about how well it might work. Activated charcoal doesn’t seem to trap alcohol well.
- Toxic effects from the antiseizure drug phenytoin. Some early research shows that activated charcoal can help remove phenytoin from the body, bringing the phenytoin levels back to a normal range.
- Wound healing. Some early research shows that using bandages with activated charcoal does not help with wound healing in people with long-term wounds such as pressure ulcers.
- Other conditions.
How does it work?
Are there safety concerns?
Special precautions & warnings:Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Activated charcoal might be safe when used short-term if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, but consult with your healthcare professional before using if you are pregnant.
Gastrointestinal (GI) blockage or slow movement of food through the intestine: Don’t use activated charcoal if you have any kind of intestinal obstruction. Also, if you have a condition that slows the passage of food through your intestine (reduced peristalsis), don’t use activated charcoal, unless you are being monitored by your healthcare provider.
Are there interactions with medications?
- Activated charcoal is sometimes used to prevent poisons from being absorbed into the body. Taking alcohol with activated charcoal might decrease how well activated charcoal works to prevent poison absorption.
- Medications taken by mouth (Oral drugs)
- Activated charcoal absorbs substances in the stomach and intestines. Taking activated charcoal along with medications taken by mouth can decrease how much medicine your body absorbs, and decrease the effectiveness of your medication. To prevent this interaction, take activated charcoal at least one hour after medications you take by mouth.
- Syrup of ipecac
- Activated charcoal can bind up syrup of ipecac in the stomach. This decreases the effectiveness of syrup of ipecac.
Are there interactions with herbs and supplements?
- There are no known interactions with herbs and supplements.
Are there interactions with foods?
- Alcohol (Ethanol)
- Alcohol may make activated charcoal less effective in "trapping" poisons and other chemicals.
- Activated charcoal can make it more difficult for the body to absorb micronutrients.
What dose is used?
- For drug overdose or poisoning: 50-100 grams of activated charcoal is given at first, followed by charcoal every 2-4 hours at a dose equal to 12.5 grams per hour. Sometimes a single-dose of 25-100 grams of activated charcoal may be used.
- For drug overdose or poisoning: Activated charcoal 10-25 grams is recommended for children up to one year of age, while activated charcoal 25-50 grams is recommended for children 1-12 years of age. Activated charcoal 10-25 grams is recommended if multiple-doses of activated charcoal are needed.
To learn more about how this article was written, please see the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database methodology.
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