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What Is Activated Charcoal

    Activated charcoal is often used to treat poisoning or overdose and may also treat diarrhea and lower cholesterol. Many use it as a home remedy for various concerns, but little scientific evidence supports its other suggested benefits.

    Activated charcoal is a black, odorless, flavorless powder used since ancient times to treat various ailments.

    Nowadays, it’s most commonly utilized in medical settings to treat drug overdoses or as an emergency anti-poison remedy.

    Activated charcoal offers several other benefits, including less gas and flatulence, lower cholesterol levels, and improved kidney function. Some people claim it helps whiten teeth, filters water, and even cures hangovers.

    Still, you may wonder how many of these claims are backed by science.

    This article reviews what activated charcoal is and its evidence-based benefits, side effects, and dosage.


    Activated charcoal has pores that can trap chemicals. It is typically taken by mouth as a treatment for some swallowed poisons. There needs to be more evidence for other uses.

    Charcoal is made from peat, coal, wood, coconut shell, or petroleum. Activated charcoal is made by heating charcoal in the presence of a gas. This process causes the charcoal to develop lots of internal spaces or pores. These pores help activated charcoal trap chemicals.

    Activated charcoal is commonly used to treat poisoning. It is also used for high cholesterol, hangovers, and upset stomachs, but there is no solid scientific evidence to support most of these uses.

    What is activated charcoal?

    Activated charcoal is not the same substance as that found in charcoal bricks or burned pieces of food.

    The manufacture of activated charcoal makes it highly absorbent, allowing it to bind to molecules, ions, or atoms and remove them from dissolved substances.

    Activated charcoal involves heating carbon-rich materials, such as wood, peat, coconut shells, or sawdust, to very high temperatures.

    This “activation” process strips the charcoal of previously absorbed molecules and frees up bonding sites again. This process also reduces the size of the pores in the charcoal and makes more holes in each molecule, increasing its overall surface area.

    As a result, one teaspoon of activated charcoal has about the same surface area as a football field.

    Applications and Benefits

    Activated charcoal is most frequently used as an antidote to an overdose of several over-the-counter drugs, such as analgesics. The timing of administering activated charcoal in poisoning cases can make a difference in life and death.

    • Activated charcoal should be administered as soon as possible, about 1 to 2 hours upon exposure to the poisonous chemical or substance.
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      It also promotes kidney function by absorbing substantial impurities and excreting them in feces. Therefore, kidneys have to work less vigorously. Additionally, it helps reduce unpleasant urine odors.
    • Because of its ability to bind with cholesterol and bile acids, it is also helpful in cholesterol adsorption. The other applications of activated charcoal include water filtration, teeth whitening, reduced gas and bloating, and skin treatment.

    The bottom line

    Activated charcoal is a natural remedy with various uses.

    It’s most commonly used as an emergency overdose or anti-poison treatment—significant amounts of research back this application.

    It may also help lower cholesterol levels, fight symptoms of fishy odor syndrome, improve kidney function, and reduce gas and diarrhea. Still, studies supporting these benefits tend to be older or limited in scope.

    Activated charcoal can interact with other medications, so check with your doctor before trying it if you’re currently taking medications. Start with the lower end of the recommended dose to see how you react to it before increasing the amount.

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