Oral Activated Charcoal in the Treatment of Intoxications

Role of Single and Repeated Doses
  • Pertti J. Neuvonen
  • Klaus T. Olkkola
Toxicology Management Review

Summary

Activated charcoal has an ability to adsorb a wide variety of substances. This property can be applied to prevent the gastrointestinal absorption of various drugs and toxins and to increase their elimination, even after systemic absorption.

Single doses of oral activated charcoal effectively prevent the gastrointestinal absorption of most drugs and toxins present in the stomach at the time of charcoal administration. Known exceptions are alcohols, cyanide, and metals such as iron and lithium. In general, activated charcoal is more effective than gastric emptying. However, if the amount of drug or poison ingested is very large or if its affinity to charcoal is poor, the adsorption capacity of activated charcoal can be saturated. In such cases properly performed gastric emptying is likely to be more effective than charcoal alone.

Repeated dosing with oral activated charcoal enhances the elimination of many toxicologically significant agents, e.g. aspirin, carbamazepine, dapsone, dextropropoxyphene, cardiac glycosides, meprobamate, phenobarbitone, phenytoin and theophylline. It also accelerates the elimination of many industrial and environmental intoxicants.

In acute intoxications 50 to 100g activated charcoal should be administered to adult patients (to children, about 1 g/kg) as soon as possible. The exceptions are patients poisoned with caustic alkalis or acids which will immediately cause local tissue damages. To avoid delays in charcoal administration, activated charcoal should be a part of firstaid kits both at home and at work. The ‘blind’ administration of charcoal neither prevents later gastric emptying nor does it cause serious adverse effects provided that pulmonary aspiration in obtunded patients is prevented.

In severe acute poisonings oral activated charcoal should be administered repeatedly, e.g. 20 to 50g at intervals of 4 to 6 hours, until recovery or until plasma drug concentrations have fallen to non-toxic levels. In addition to increasing the elimination of many drugs and toxins even after their systemic absorption, repeated doses of charcoal also reduce the risk of desorbing from the charcoal-toxin complex as the complex passes through the gastrointestinal tract. Charcoal will not increase the elimination of all substances taken. However, as the drug history in acute intoxications is often unreliable, repeated doses of oral activated charcoal in severe intoxications seem to be justified unless the toxicological laboratory has identified the causative agent as not being prone to adsorption by charcoal.

The role of repeated doses of oral activated charcoal in chronic intoxications has not been clearly defined. Charcoal seems able to accelerate the elimination of many industrial and environmental toxicants like dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls and possibly also some heavy metals, including their radioactive isotopes. Further studies will be needed to define the value of repeated doses of oral activated charcoal in chronic intoxications.

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Copyright information

© ADIS Press Limited 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Pertti J. Neuvonen
    • 1
  • Klaus T. Olkkola
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Clinical PharmacologyUniversity of Helsinki and University Central HospitalHelsinkiFinland

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