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Activated Charcoal for Food Poisoning Likely Ineffective

Posted in Our Blog on May 11, 2024

Activated charcoal has been a savior for many years when it comes to poisonings. But how does it hold up for food poisoning?

Experts say that activated charcoal for food poisoning is likely ineffective.

Chemical poisoning is very different from food poisoning in many different ways. What makes it more effective for chemical poisoning versus food poisoning?

First, lets talk about what activated charcoal is, and how it works in the human body.

What is Activated Charcoal, and How Does it Work?

Activated charcoal is made by burning wood at extremely high temperatures to produce a residue. This residue is primarily carbon. That carbon is turned into a powder that is used for many different purposes and readily available over the counter.

Some of those purposes include dietary supplements and treatments for poisonings.

Historically, activated charcoal has been used as a treatment for poisonings and it is still used for that purpose for certain types of poisonings today.

How does it work?

It is thought to “soak up” some of the poison to remove it from the body. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for all poisonings or in all cases.

Is Activated Charcoal for Food Poisoning Effective?

Unfortunately, food poisoning is generally not the same as chemical poisoning. While activated charcoal may offer some benefit in some cases for chemical poisoning, it is largely ineffective on food poisoning cases.

In addition, it can cause issues that may make food poisoning symptoms worse.

Activated charcoal can cause vomiting. If a person is already vomiting, the use of activated charcoal may make the problem even worse.

Additionally, activated charcoal can interfere with the absorption of medications the person is taking. In these cases, taking activated charcoal for food poisoning can cause more harm than good.

Food poisoning is usually caused by a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection. People become sick when those organisms reproduce inside the body to infectious numbers. Activated charcoal can do nothing to stop these pathogens from reproducing.

Using Activated Charcoal for Food Poisoning to Treat Diarrhea

The small benefit observed in those using activated charcoal for food poisoning may come from the potential benefit of reducing diarrheal symptoms.

While activated charcoal may reduce diarrheal symptoms for some people, there is little research on the effectiveness of the product as an anti-diarrheal agent. The general thought is that charcoal helps to absorb the fluid content of stool, in turn making them more solid. This masks the diarrheal symptoms but does not improve the problem.

Side Effects and Risks of Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal comes with its own side effects and risks. In addition to vomiting, it can cause blockages in the bowel and even pulmonary aspiration if accidentally inhaled into the lungs.

Pulmonary aspiration can be very serious, leading to a lung injury known as aspiration pneumonitis.

Breathing in the fine activated charcoal particles can result in breathing difficulties or even death.

Some people are at higher risk of these complications. These include people who:

  • take opiods,
  • have disorders of the intestine,
  • take multiple or high doses of activated charcoal
  • take antimuscarinic drugs, such as atropine and scopolamine

Additionally, activated charcoal is especially dangerous for someone who is unconscious. As activated charcoal may lead to vomiting, giving activated charcoal to someone who is unconscious is a very bad idea. In fact, an unconscious person with vomiting and diarrhea is a medical emergency.

Could Using Activated Charcoal for Food Poisoning Cause More Harm Than Good?

In some cases, using activated charcoal for food poisoning may cause more harm than good. While official studies are lacking, studies in mice have shown that activated charcoal can cause constipation.

It can also lead to dehydration. Since charcoal absorbs liquids, precious liquids the body needs to prevent dehydration when experiencing food poisoning, it can result in negative outcomes.

Signs of dehydration in adults includes:

  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • extreme thirst
  • dark yellow urine
  • dry mouth, lips, or eyes
  • difficulty staying away
  • passing little to no urine

It can be a little more difficult to identify signs of dehydration in babies or young children.

Signs of dehydration in babies and young children includes:

  • dry mouth
  • drowsiness
  • dark yellow urine
  • fast breathing
  • cold hands and feet
  • few or no tears when crying
  • a soft, sunken spot on the top of the head

Seek medical attention if conditions worsen or you show signs of dehydration. Dehydration can lead to serious and life-threatening complications.

Is Activated Charcoal for Food Poisoning Due to Pesticides Effective?

Some studies have shown that using activated charcoal for food poisoning specifically due to pesticides may show some effectiveness.

This comes from the theory that activated charcoal can absorb chemicals. Chemicals are often used in pesticides. One such study identified that “oral activated charcoal in multiple doses may be an effective adjunctive treatment due to its presumed ability to adsorb at least some pesticides and trap them in the intraluminal space of the intestine followed by rectal excretion.” In other words, it can absorb and trap those toxins and then let you poop it out.

For cases where activated charcoal does not make the most sense, the bowel can be irrigated, or stomach pumped to remove the offending chemicals.

While the idea is more promising for treating food poisoning due to pesticide contamination, there is still a lot that is unknown on which substances will work for this treatment protocol.

Opt for Other Options

Always consult with your doctor before attempting to use activated charcoal for food poisoning because there may be better options available to you. While activated charcoal may work in some situations, there may be more effective options available.

Stay in Touch with Make Food Safe!

If you’d like to know more about food safety topics in the news, like Activated Charcoal for Food Poisoning Likely Ineffective, check out the Make Food Safe Blog. We regularly update trending topics, foodborne infections in the news, recalls, and more! Stay tuned for quality information to help keep your family safe, while The Lange Law Firm, PLLC strives to Make Food Safe!

By: Heather Van Tassell (contributing writer, non-lawyer)