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Activated charcoal For The Rescue

Author: Dr. Asha Bonney, MedSchoolForParents.com Expert
With most seemingly innocuous household cleaning and gardening products containing harmful substances, it is no wonder parents are concerned about their child’s risk of poisoning. 
The majority of reported poisonings occur at home and in children under the age of six.  As a result, parents often ask how can they be ready at home and what they can do in case of ingestion?   Specifically, is there a place for keeping activated charcoal in the medicine cabinet at home?
But let us start with the ipecac story first. Ipecac is a poison extract from the root of the plant ‘rhizome’ mixed with sugar to moderate its bitter taste. Once recommended by pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics to be taken when toxic ingestions occur, ipecac is no longer suggested. Ipecac induces vomiting, but it does not actually prevent absorption of the poison from the stomach. So pediatricians and toxicology experts do not recommend ipecac at home and in most hospitals it is not part of treatment of poison ingestion.
Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal, on the other hand, is a form of carbon, which can be obtained from a variety of sources including coconut shells. This form of charcoal has many small pockets to help increase absorption of the poison and is used in emergency rooms for toxic ingestions. It binds to the toxins and prevents absorption in the stomach and intestines. As an absorbent, it must be given soon after ingestion, usually within 1 hour.  So should parents play doctors and keep activated charcoal at home? The answer by experts is YES! It saves time and can increase absorption of the poison, way before hitting the ER doors, especially for those children living far from a hospital.
When should activated charcoal be given?
Even if activated charcoal is available at home, the first thing parents should do is grab the local poisons hotline number from the fridge magnet and call for advice. The nurses and paramedics at the hotlines across the Country can give instructions on how to administer the activated charcoal. Activated charcoal should never be given to a child that is confused, very sleepy or unconscious, as the substance can end up in the lungs.
How should you give your child activated charcoal?
The best way to achieve the required dose is mixing it in water, although it can also be given with yogurt, ice cream or crushed fruit. Dr Adam Cheng, a Pediatrician and Emergency Doctor at Alberta Children’s Hospital, Canada, conducted a study in 2007, which found that the majority of children preferred activated charcoal when mixed with coca-cola or milk compared to water. However, in an interview for MedSchoolForParents.com, Dr Cheng acknowledged that whilst mixing activated charcoal with coca-cola or milk does improve palatability, it is yet another thing for parents to consider in a stressful situation and hence may make the process more complicated.
How much should you give your child?
You should follow the advice of your local poison hotline, and the dose is usually 1 gram of activated charcoal per kilogram of the child’s weight.
Treatment for ingestion of poisonous substances is important, but more so is the prevention of ingestion. Common advice to minimize children’s risk of poison ingestion includes-
  1. Keep potential poisons out of child’s reach and sight - lock them
  2. Safe disposal of medications and hazardous products
  3. Keep cleaning supplies away from food and locked
  4. Avoid referring to medications as candy
  5. Keep substances and medications in their original packaging
Update : 03/08/2017


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