What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a substance that holds a variety of medical uses, but it is predominantly used in the emergency treatment of certain types of poisonings. Activated charcoal has the unique ability to block the body's absorption of dangerous substances by preventing them from entering the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach. This substance is similar to charcoal that is used for cooking, which is made from peat, coal, wood, coconut shell or petroleum, but activated charcoal is cooked within distance of a chemical that causes small holes, or pores, to develop in the surface of the charcoal that helps activated charcoal "trap" chemicals.
Activated charcoal is available in numerous forms for both at-home use and in medical settings. The most common activated charcoal types include liquid, suspension, tablets taken orally, chewable tablets, full-scale kits and powders for suspension. While this product is available over-the-counter, it is advisable that patients call their doctors, a poison control center or an emergency room for further instructions before use.
How is activated charcoal used?
Activated charcoal is available for at-home use, but is predominantly used in major poison control situations in the hospital as doctors rush to prevent the body from absorbing poisonous substances that are in the body. In most poison control cases, this material is ingested and then expelled using a vomit inducer like Ipecac to ensure that the non-digestible activated charcoal and any remaining hazardous material is expelled from the body. Additionally, some activated charcoal variants contain sorbitol, a laxative that can induce diarrhea or vomiting to eliminate this material from the body.
In addition to its role in poison control, activated charcoal has a variety of secondary uses, some that are backed by medical research and others that require further study. For example, activated charcoal has been used to combat intestinal gas, to lower one's cholesterol levels and even as a hangover remedy, but these are not clinically approved uses.