Purpose of review
For decades, activated charcoal has been used as a ‘universal antidote’ for the majority of poisons because of its ability to prevent the absorption of most toxic agents from the gastrointestinal tract and enhance the elimination of some agents already absorbed. This manuscript will review the history of activated charcoal, its indications, contraindications, and the complications associated with its use as reported in the literature.
Recent randomized prospective studies, although with small numbers, have shown no difference in length of hospital stay, morbidity, and mortality between groups who received and did not receive activated charcoal. No study has had sufficient numbers to satisfactorily address clinical outcome in patients who received activated charcoal less than 1 h following ingestion.
If used appropriately, activated charcoal has relatively low morbidity. Due to the lack of definitive studies showing a benefit in clinical outcome, it should not be used routinely in ingestions. AC could be considered for patients with an intact airway who present soon after ingestion of a toxic or life-threatening dose of an adsorbable toxin. The appropriate use of activated charcoal should be determined by the analysis of the relative risks and benefits of its use in each specific clinical scenario.