Misadventures with Activated Charcoal and Recommendations for Safe Use Article (Web of Science)


  • OBJECTIVE: To review published reports of adverse effects associated with single- and multiple-dose activated charcoal therapy, and to formulate recommendations for safe use of activated charcoal therapy. DATA SOURCES: A manual search of Index Medicus from 1970 to December 1993 was conducted for English language articles; bibliographies of the resultant articles were also scanned. STUDY SELECTION: Cases were included if they were described in full detail, resulted in significant morbidity or mortality, and uniquely contributed to the formulation of recommendations for safe use of activated charcoal therapy. DATA SYNTHESIS: The major causes of morbidity and mortality secondary to activated charcoal therapy are aspiration of charcoal, gastrointestinal obstruction, and fluid and electrolyte abnormalities. Aspirations have occurred as a result of a number of circumstances that may be avoided. These include use in patients with unprotected airways, use of excessive charcoal dose, administration of inappropriately diluted charcoal, and administration of charcoal in the field. Gastrointestinal obstruction has occurred when multiple doses of activated charcoal have been administered without a cathartic and in cases in which a cathartic was administered if the patient had impaired peristalsis. Fluid and electrolyte abnormalities have occurred secondary to excessive cathartic administration. CONCLUSIONS: Activated charcoal therapy should be used judiciously so that related morbidity and mortality can be prevented. Adequate consideration for the patient's airway protection capability is necessary. Judicious dosing of charcoal and concomitant cathartic therapy, along with adequate monitoring of fluid and electrolyte status, abdominal physical assessment, and clinical condition are all vital to the safe use of activated charcoal therapy.


publication date

  • 1994

published in

number of pages

  • 9

start page

  • 915

end page

  • 924


  • 28


  • 7-8