What is Activated Charcoal? - Uses & Side Effects

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Activated charcoal is used in emergency situations where someone has consumed a toxic substance. Read this lesson to learn how activated charcoal works, why it's used, and the possible side effects that may occur.

Activated Charcoal

What is activated charcoal? Usually, when you hear the word charcoal, you think of grilling hamburgers on a sunny summer day. Well, that's not quite the same type of charcoal we'll discuss in this lesson, though there are some similarities. This standard charcoal is made of peat, coal, wood, coconut shells, or petroleum, but the 'activated' version is heated and acidified until it becomes a fine black powder. These small pieces have numerous pores, or small openings, throughout and their small size increases the surface area available.

Activated Charcoal Uses

Why do we care about getting the charcoal to be porous and small in size? Well, activated charcoal is used in emergency situations where someone has consumed a toxic substance. When it's swallowed, the toxins bind to the charcoal, preventing their absorption into the body. Activated charcoal only works when the toxins are still in the stomach or intestines - once the body has absorbed the toxins and transported them away from the stomach or intestines, the activated charcoal is useless. When the toxins are still in the gastrointestinal tract, the charcoal can reduce their absorption by the body by about 60%. Additionally, the body doesn't digest or absorb the charcoal, so the charcoal and bound toxins pass through the body. Sometimes the stomach is pumped first and then activated charcoal is administered to bind to any remaining toxins that weren't expelled through vomiting.

Though activated charcoal is primarily used to decontaminate the gastrointestinal tract, it is sometimes used to reduce gas, lower cholesterol, prevent hangovers from excessive alcohol consumption, or treat bile flow issues in pregnant women; however, there is still limited evidence supporting its use for these additional uses.

Side Effects of Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal is a fine powder that is odorless, tasteless, and non-toxic. It's typically administered orally, either as a tablet or dissolved in water. When used in emergency short-term cases, side effects are rare, other than possible constipation and black stools. Because the charcoal isn't digested by the body, it passes through, causing the stool to appear black in color.

Activated charcoal is ground into a powder to increase the amount of toxins that can bind to it.
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It should not be used in people who have a history of slow digestion or intestinal blockages because it can make these conditions worse. In rare cases, stomach pain, regurgitation into the lungs, and dehydration can occur.

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