Activated Charcoal and Poisoning – Part 5

While it is an established fact that activated charcoal acts as an antidote in poisoning from most drugs and chemicals, it’s not effective against the following: cyanide, alcohol, caustic alkalies (such as lye), mineral acids, or boric acids.

It is imperative for strong alkaline and acid poisons to be treated with solutions with the opposite pH. Calcium powder in water will help neutralize acids and vinegar will help counteract alkalies. You should immediately call a Poison Control Center (numbers are in the front of your phone book), or a doctor for guidance in any poisoning emergency.

If the chemical compound can be treated with charcoal, when mixed with water and swallowed, activated charcoal powder adsorbs the poison or drug, rendering it inert. It then takes it through the digestive tract and out of the body. One of the many benefits of activated charcoal is that it is not absorbed, adsorbed, neutralized, nor metabolized by the body—meaning that any toxins the charcoal adsorbed will not remain in the body. With this in mind, no home, especially one with children, should be without activated charcoal powder.

Activated Charcoal Dosages

Many people ask, “How much activated charcoal should I use in case of poisoning?” Although those who support charcoal’s use as an antidote for poisoning are clear that you cannot take too much, there is less clarity on the exact amount to take. In the book, Activated Charcoal in Medical Applications, Cooney cited three recommended calculations based on:

Age: 25 grams to 50 grams for children
Body weight: 1 gram per kg body weight
Amount of poison ingested: 10 grams of activated charcoal per 1 grams of poison.1,2

One tablespoon of charcoal equals about ten grams. Fourteen capsules equal about a tablespoon of powder. If powdered charcoal is used, add water to it to make a slurry mixture and stir well.

How to Use Activated Charcoal to Counteract Poison

In a poisoning emergency, providing the person is still conscious, use activated charcoal to neutralize the poison. The typical amount is 5-50 grams of charcoal, based on the person’s age and size. Depending on the amount of poison ingested, adults should take at least 30 grams (about half a cup of lightly packed powder mixed with water). Larger amounts will be needed if the person had just eaten a meal.

Again, before giving a poisoning victim charcoal to ingest as a slurry mixture, it is vitally important that the person is conscious and able to properly swallow! If they are unable to swallow, the charcoal slurry will enter the lungs. This can lead to lung respiratory distress that may call for the poor soul to be put on a ventilator.

Two hundred grams of activated charcoal is not too much in cases of severe poisoning. Activated charcoal will reach its max rate of adsorption within one minute. The sooner it is given, the more complete will be the adsorption of the poison. Continue this dose every four hours, or until charcoal appears in the stool. Always keep a large jar of activated charcoal in a place where you can quickly grab it!

Things to Keep in Mind

Remember to never give activated charcoal, or anything else, to an unconscious person to swallow. Call 911 or a physician immediately.

Remember that activated charcoal will not work in cases of poisoning by strong acids or alkalies.

Food tends to impair charcoal’s adsorption. Increase oral dosage of charcoal if a meal was recently eaten.

Despite our best efforts to keep our children from harm, sometimes they manage to ingest drugs, household chemicals, or insecticides. Now that you know the benefits of activated charcoal, keep a supply handy in powdered and capsule or tablet form.

<-Part 4 | Activated Charcoal and Poisoning

Reference cited:

1. Cooney, David O, ed. Activated Charcoal in Medical Applications, New York, NY: Marcel Decker; 163-184, 1995

2. Dinsley, John. The Complete Handbook of Medicinal Charcoal and Its Applications. Southside Boularderie, N.S.: Gatekeeper Books, 2005.

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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

1 Comment
  1. I think I’m missing something. If each Tbsp equals about 10g, wouldn’t a half cup contain approximately 80 g (1/2 cup = 8 Tbsp)?

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