A retrospective review of the prehospital use of activated charcoal

Am J Emerg Med. 2015 Jan;33(1):56-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2014.10.019. Epub 2014 Oct 22.


Objective: We studied the complications and timing implications of prehospital activated charcoal (PAC). Appropriateness of PAC administration was also evaluated.

Methods: We retrospectively reviewed prehospital records over 32 months for overdose cases, where PAC was administered. Cases were assessed for amount and type of ingestant, clinical findings, timing of PAC, timing of transport and arrival into the emergency department (ED), and complications. Encounter duration in cases of PAC was compared with that, for all cases during the study period, where an overdose patient who did not receive activated charcoal was transported.

Results: Two thousand eight hundred forty-five total cases were identified. In 441 cases, PAC was given; and complications could be assessed. Two hundred eighty-one of these had complete information regarding timing of ingestion, activated charcoal administration, and transport. The average time between overdose and PAC was 49.8 minutes (range, 7-199 minutes; median, 41.0 minutes; SD, 30.4 minutes). Complications included emesis (7%), declining mental status (4%), declining blood pressure (0.4%), and declining oxygen saturation (0.4%). Four hundred seventeen cases of PAC had documentation of timing of emergency medical service (EMS) arrival on scene and arrival at the ED. Average EMS encounter time was 29 minutes (range, 10-53 minutes; median, 27.9 minutes). Two thousand forty-four poisoning patients were transported who did not receive PAC. The average EMS encounter time for this group was 28.1 minutes (range, 4-82 minutes; median, 27.3 minutes), not significantly different (P =.114).

Conclusions: Prehospital activated charcoal did not appear to markedly delay transport or arrival of overdose patients into the ED and was generally safe.

MeSH terms

  • Antidotes / therapeutic use*
  • Charcoal / therapeutic use*
  • Drug Overdose / drug therapy*
  • Emergency Medical Services
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Poisoning / drug therapy*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Time Factors
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antidotes
  • Charcoal