Activated charcoal is a fine, black, odorless, and tasteless powder. It is made from wood or other materials that have been exposed to very high temperatures in an airless environment. It is then treated, or activated, to increase its ability to adsorb by reheating with oxidizing gas or other chemicals to break it into a very fine powder. Activated charcoal is pure carbon specially processed to make it highly adsorbent of particles and gases in the body’s digestive system.
Activated charcoal has often been used since ancient times to cure a variety of ailments including poisoning. Its healing effects have been well documented since as early as 1550 B.C. by the Egyptians. However, charcoal was almost forgotten until 15 years ago when it was rediscovered as a wonderful oral agent to treat most overdoses and toxins.
Activated charcoal’s most important use is for treatment of poisoning. It helps prevent the absorption of most poisons or drugs by the stomach and intestines. In addition to being used for most swallowed poisons in humans, charcoal has been effectively used in dogs, rabbits, rats, and other animals, as well. It can also adsorb gas in the bowels and has been used for the treatment of gas or diarrhea. Charcoal’s other uses such as treatment of viruses, bacteria, bacterial toxic byproducts, snake venoms and other substances by adsorption have not been supported by clinical studies. By adding water to the powder to make a paste, activated charcoal can be used as an external application to alleviate pain and itching from bites and stings.
Poisons and drug overdoses
It is estimated that one million children accidentally overdose on drugs mistaken as candies or eat, drink, or inhale poisonous household products each year. Infants and toddlers are at the greatest risk for accidental poisoning. Activated charcoal is one of the agents most commonly used for these cases. It can absorb large amounts of poisons quickly. In addition, it is non-toxic, may be stored for a long time, and can be conveniently administered at home. Charcoal works by binding to irritating or toxic substances in the stomach and intestines. This prevents the toxic drug or chemical from spreading throughout the body. The activated charcoal with the toxic substance bound to it is then excreted in the stool without harm to the body. When poisoning is suspected the local poison control center should be contacted for instructions. They may recommend using activated charcoal, which should be available at home so that it can be given to the poisoned child or pet immediately. For severe poisoning, several doses of activated charcoal may be needed.
In the past, activated charcoal was a popular remedy for gas. Even before the discovery of America by Europeans, Native Americans used powdered charcoal mixed with water to treat an upset stomach. Now charcoal is being rediscovered as an alternative treatment for this condition. Activated charcoal works like a sponge. Its huge surface area is ideal for soaking up different substances, including gas. In one study, people taking activated charcoal after eating a meal with high gas-producing foods did not produce more gas than those who did not have these foods. Charcoal has also been used to treat other intestinal disorders such as diarrhea, constipation, and cramps. There are few studies to support these uses and there are also concerns that frequent use of charcoal may decrease absorption of essential nutrients, especially in children.
Besides being a general antidote for poisons or remedy for gas, activated charcoal has been used to treat other conditions as well. Based on its ability to adsorb or bind to other substances, charcoal has been effectively used to clean skin wounds and to adsorb waste materials from the gastrointestinal tract. In addition, it has been used to adsorb snake venoms, viruses, bacteria, and harmful materials excreted by bacteria or fungi. However, because of lack of scientific studies, these uses are not recommended. Activated charcoal, when used together with other remedies such as aloe vera, acidophilus, and psyllium, helps to keep symptoms of ulcerative colitis under control. While charcoal shows some anti-aging activity in rats, it is doubtful if it can do the same for humans.