Purpose of review: Gastrointestinal decontamination in overdose patients remains a controversial problem in emergency medicine. There has been a significant decrease in the use of single-dose activated charcoal (SDAC) in recent years based on little new evidence and possibly because the overall mortality in overdose patients is low.
Recent findings: Human volunteer studies suggest SDAC is effective and this effect occurs for up to 4 h after ingestion, but the magnitude of the reduction in area under the curve (AUC) decreases over time. Two randomized controlled trials including one recent large study did not find SDAC to be beneficial. Pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic studies of specific drugs in overdose suggest that for most drugs SDAC decreases drug exposure, but this does not translate to clinical benefit in all cases. The administration of SDAC is a low-risk intervention.
Summary: Although SDAC is unlikely to be beneficial in many overdose patients, for some subgroups with severe poisoning, the benefits will outweigh the low risk of administration. The use of SDAC should be based on the potential toxicity of the drug ingested and the potential benefit of SDAC balanced against the willingness of the patient to take SDAC and the low risk of administration.