Counseling Sheet

Charcoal - 1

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Preventive Medicine


Last week I was walking around in a health food store and my eye fell on charcoal tablets. I questioned the store manager about the charcoal, as I had heard that charcoal causes cancer. The health food store manager assured me that the tablets were good for intestinal gas and drug overdoses and would not be of any risk for cancer. He said that pediatricians were now using it for children. Did the man tell me the truth about charcoal?


I am glad you are inquiring about this very versatile home remedy. The health food store operator told you the straight facts. There are several forms of charcoal which may be taken internally, capsules, tablets, powder, paste, and liquid suspension. The powder form is cheapest and can be stirred into a slurry with water and taken by mouth.

The charcoal tablets are quite effective in fighting a sore throat. The tablet can be placed in the mouth and allowed to dissolve and bathe the tonsils, the charcoal attaching to the germs by a physical union called adsorption, holding them in this union until the charcoal is passed unchanged from the body.

Charcoal has been used through the ages to absorb a variety of poisons including lead, DDT, strychnine, camphor, alcohol, hemlock, Malathion, nicotine, mercury, phosphorus, iron, silver, potassium permanganate, and many other chemicals and drugs. In one study comparing patients who had taken drug overdoses, one group was treated with charcoal and was compared with those treated by the standard techniques for poisoning, and it was found that there was a great reduction in the length of time required for the patients' nervous system to return to normal if they were treated with charcoal. In other studies, charcoal was shown in drug poisoning cases to be more effective in reducing drug absorption into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestinal tract than was Syrup of Ipecac, one of the standard treatments in this country for treating poisoning by inducing vomiting. The charcoal powder is stirred into water and the patient drinks the charcoal water. The patient may, if desired, induce vomiting by gagging, and take a second and third dose of charcoal, the second also being brought up by vomiting; but the third dose is kept down to pass through the intestinal tract with any residual poisonous material that had been left in the stomach. The sooner the charcoal can be taken the better. Some pediatricians have begun recommending that households with children should have charcoal readily available for accidental swallowings. The 27 Regional Poison Control Centers in the U.S. all recommend charcoal.

Jaundice of the newborn has been effectively treated with charcoal in certain hospitals. The bilirubin (bile pigment) level in the blood must not be allowed to reach a point considered to be dangerous to the brain of the baby. The jaundiced baby must be continually checked to make certain the level at which exchange transfusions should be made is not approached. Since 1975, babies in some hospitals are being protected from reaching such high levels by giving charcoal during the first 4 to 6 hours of life. In some hospitals, the blood exchange transfusion rate has dropped 60% or more by using charcoal.

For years, charcoal has been used in the "universal antidote" in emergency rooms around the country. It is now recognized that charcoal alone is much more effective than the mixture of charcoal, tea, and milk of magnesia, the standard universal antidote.

One of the best uses for charcoal is on venomous bites such as bee stings and fire ant bites. It is good for poison ivy and a number of other skin conditions. Simply add sufficient water to the powdered charcoal to make a paste. Place this mixture on a piece of material such as bed sheeting or paper toweling, cover with a plastic material such as a bread bag cut large enough to completely cover the compress and extend over on all sides to keep the moisture in. Hold in place with tape or roller bandage such as an ace bandage or gauze. This compress may be left on overnight, or in very serious venomous bites such as bee stings or spider bites, may be changed every 15 or 20 minutes for the first hour or two. A charcoal paste preparation will soon be introduced that will take all the work out of making a compress.

For generations, charcoal has been used for intestinal gas, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. The person with traveler's diarrhea will welcome a package of charcoal tablets or capsules in the purse. At the first sign of queasiness in the abdomen, 4 to 8 charcoal tablets should be taken and repeated with every loose stool. The same can be used as a treatment for nausea and vomiting or an upset stomach. If a person vomits, the full dose of charcoal should be taken, and should be repeated each time the person vomits.

There are no ill effects of charcoal, since it does not react with the body. In some persons, it may cause a slight degree of intestinal irritation if taken in large doses such as 10 to 12 tablespoonful at a time. Some individuals who do not drink adequate water may experience some constipation. Charcoal does not cause cancer, but charred or burnt toast should be strictly avoided as the fats can cause potential cancer-producing chemicals when overheated. Wood products and coconut shells, the primary source of commercial charcoal, do not contain these fats.

Charcoal may be obtained in health food stores and pharmacies and should be kept on hand in all homes. Use 1-6 teaspoons for one ordinary dose.

Since charcoal briquettes are often treated with chemicals to encourage easy igniting, they are unsuitable for treatments either internally or externally.

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Uchee Pines Lifestyle Center
30 Uchee Pines Road #75
Seale, Alabama 36875