By: Ankita Kulkarni
August 9 2023
Activated charcoal is administered only when it can absorb the ingested toxin. It is not recommended for all types of stomach poisoning.
A Facebook video claims that charcoal can be used to treat any kind of poisoning and is a cure for diarrhea. The video states, “Charcoal not only absorbs poison, it neutralizes poison. That's a very important point. So you can use it internally for any poisoning, or you can use it internally for diarrhea.” Similar narratives are also viral on X (formerly Twitter). The archived post can be found here and here.
Activated charcoal is administered for treating poisoning within the first hour of ingestion, only when the toxin is known to be adsorbed by charcoal. It cannot be used as a remedy for all toxins.
An article published by News Medical clarifies that activated charcoal is produced when carbon (wood, bamboo, or charcoal) is treated at high temperatures with oxygen, which is then made into powder and sold as a consumable product. It is not the same as the charcoal briquettes that are used for grilling.
A 2023 scientific literature review published by The University of Tennessee Health Science Center notes that activated charcoal absorbs ingested toxins onto its surface and prevents them from spreading from the gastrointestinal tract. It is administered only when “the ingested toxin is known to be adsorbed by charcoal.” The review adds that charcoal does not effectively absorb toxins from alcohols, metals such as iron and lithium, electrolytes such as magnesium, potassium, or sodium, and acids and alkalis, due to the polarity of these substances. The article suggests consulting a regional toxicologist before using it due to the variability in the dosage strategies.
Another 2019 scientific literature review published in the German medical journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt also indicated that “activated charcoal is ineffective or inadequately effective in cases of poisoning with acids or bases, alcohols, organic solvents, inorganic salts, or metals.” It is important to note that charcoal only absorbs toxins and stops their spread. No studies indicate that it “neutralizes the poison,” as claimed in the post.
Speaking with Logically Facts, Dr. Maulik Patel, a general physician and an internal medicine specialist based in India, confirmed that activated charcoal is not used for all types of stomach poisoning and is also not a recommended treatment for diarrhea. He said, “Charcoal can absorb liquids inside the body, for example from the liver, which can in turn lead to dehydration and worsen diarrhea, vomiting, and bloating.”
Scientific evidence also clearly shows that consumption of activated charcoal is associated with side effects such as emesis, aspiration, and bowel obstruction. Regular intake can lead to vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, urge to defecate, and anal irritation.
While activated charcoal can absorb some specific toxins, not all types of poisoning can be treated using activated charcoal. It is given only when the toxin is known to be absorbed by activated charcoal and is not recommended as a cure for diarrhea. Therefore, we have marked this claim as misleading.