The Use of Activated Charcoal to Treat Intoxications

Tobias Zellner, Dagmar Prasa, Elke Färber, Petra Hoffmann-Walbeck, Dieter Genser, Florian Eyer
Deutsches Ärzteblatt International 2019 May 3, 116 (18): 311-317

BACKGROUND: In 2016, according to the German Federal Statistical Office, 178 425 cases of intoxication (poisoning) were treated in German hospitals. The poison control centers in the German-speaking countries gave advice in a total of 268 787 instances of poisoning in that year, and use of activated charcoal was recommended in 4.37% of cases. The application of activated charcoal plays a major role in both primary and secondary detoxification. This article serves as an overview of the mechanism of action, indications, contraindications, modes of application, and dosing of activated charcoal.

METHODS: This review is based on pertinent publications retrieved by a selective search in PubMed. The opinions of experts from the poison control centers in the German-speaking countries were considered in the interpretation of the data.

RESULTS: The administration of activated charcoal is indicated to treat moderately severe to life-threatening intoxication. It should be carried out as soon as possible, within the first hour of the ingestion; timed-release preparations can be given up to 6 hours after the ingestion. An important contraindication is impaired consciousness with the danger of aspiration in a patient whose air- way has not yet been secured. Activated charcoal is ineffective or inadequately effective in cases of poisoning with acids or bases, alcohols, organic solvents, inorganic salts, or metals. The proper dosage consists of an amount that is 10 to 40 times as much as that of the intoxicating substance, or else 0.5-1 g/kg body weight in children or 50 g in adults. Repeated application is indicated for intoxications with agents that persist for a longer time in the stomach and for intoxications with timed-release drugs or drugs with a marked enterohepatic or entero-enteric circulation. The routine combination of activated charcoal with a laxative is not recommended.

CONCLUSION: Even though intoxications are common, there is still no internationally valid guideline concerning the administration of activated charcoal. A precise analysis of the risks and benefits is needed for each administration, and a poison control center should be consulted for this purpose.

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