Activated charcoal alone or after gastric lavage: a simulated large paracetamol intoxication

Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2002 Mar;53(3):312-7. doi: 10.1046/j.0306-5251.2001.01568.x.


Aims: Activated charcoal is now being recommended for patients who have ingested potentially toxic amounts of a poison, where the ingested substance adsorbs to charcoal. Combination therapy with gastric lavage and activated charcoal is widely used, although clinical studies to date have not provided evidence of additional efficacy compared with the use of activated charcoal alone. There are also doubts regarding the efficacy of activated charcoal, when administered more than 1 h after the overdose. The aim of this study was to examine if there was a difference in the effect of the two interventions 1 h post ingestion, and to determine if activated charcoal was effective in reducing the systemic absorption of a drug, when administered 2 h post ingestion.

Methods: We performed a four-limbed randomized cross-over study in 12 volunteers, who 1 h after a standard meal ingested paracetamol 50 mg kg(-1) in 125 mg tablets to mimic real-life, where several factors, such as food, interfere with gastric emptying and thus treatment. The interventions were activated charcoal after 1 h, combination therapy of gastric lavage followed by activated charcoal after 1 h, or activated charcoal after 2 h. Serum paracetamol concentrations were determined by h.p.l.c. Percentage reductions in the area under the curve (AUC) were used to estimate the efficacy of each intervention (paired observations).

Results: There was a significant (P<0.005) reduction in the paracetamol AUC with activated charcoal at 1 h (median reduction 66%, 95% confidence intervals 49, 76) compared with controls, and a significant (P<0.01) reduction for gastric lavage followed by activated charcoal at 1 h (median reduction 48.2%, 95% confidence interval 32.4, 63.7) compared with controls. There was no significant difference between the two interventions (95% confidence interval for the difference -3.8, 34.0). Furthermore, we found a significant (P<0.01) reduction in the paracetamol AUC when activated charcoal was administered 2 h after tablet ingestion when compared with controls (median 22.7%, 95% confidence intervals 13.6--34.4).

Conclusions: These results suggest that combination treatment may be no better than activated charcoal alone in patients presenting early after large overdoses. The effect of activated charcoal given 2 h post ingestion is substantially less than at 1 h, emphasizing the importance of early intervention.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / blood
  • Acetaminophen / pharmacokinetics
  • Acetaminophen / poisoning*
  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / blood
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / pharmacokinetics
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / poisoning*
  • Area Under Curve
  • Charcoal / administration & dosage*
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Drug Overdose / therapy
  • Female
  • Food
  • Gastric Lavage*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Time Factors


  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Charcoal
  • Acetaminophen