Potential time savings by prehospital administration of activated charcoal

Prehosp Emerg Care. Apr-Jun 1997;1(2):73-5. doi: 10.1080/10903129708958791.


Objective: Activated charcoal (AC) has been proven useful in many toxic ingestions. Theoretically, administration of AC in the prehospital environment could save valuable time in the treatment of patients who have sustained potentially toxic oral ingestions. The purpose of this study was to determine the frequency of prehospital AC administration and to identify time savings that could potentially result from field AC administration.

Methods: Adult patients with a chief complaint of toxic ingestion who had complete emergency medical services (EMS) and emergency department (ED) records and no medical treatment (gastric emptying, AC administration) prior to EMS arrival were eligible for inclusion. Data obtained from EMS and ED records included time of EMS departure from the scene, time of EMS arrival at the ED, and time of administration of AC in the ED. Since most EMS agencies in this system do not insert gastric tubes, patients requiring gastric tube placement for administration of AC were excluded.

Results: Twenty-nine of 117 (24.8%) adult patients received oral AC with no other intervention. None of the 117 patients received AC in the prehospital setting. The EMS transport time for these patients ranged from 5 to 43 minutes (mean 16.2 +/- 9.7 minutes). The delay from ED arrival to AC administration ranged from 5 to 94 minutes (mean 48.8 +/- 24.1 minutes), and was more than 60 minutes for 14 (48.2%) of the patients. The total time interval from scene departure to ED AC administration ranged from 17 to 111 minutes (mean 65.0 +/- 25.9 minutes).

Conclusions: In a selected subset of patients who tolerate oral AC, prehospital administration of AC could result in earlier and potentially more efficacious AC therapy. Prospective study of the benefits and feasibility of prehospital AC administration is indicated.

MeSH terms

  • Antidotes / therapeutic use*
  • Charcoal / therapeutic use*
  • Emergency Medical Services
  • Emergency Treatment / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • North Carolina
  • Poisoning / drug therapy*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Rural Health Services
  • Time Factors
  • Time Management


  • Antidotes
  • Charcoal