One of the most useful supplies that should be in your first aid kit is activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is used for all sorts of things, like aquarium filters, water filters, deodorizing air filters, and natural teeth whitening. It is also incredible for adsorption of over 4000 types of toxins, like poisons and venoms.
Charcoal vs. Activated Charcoal
Charcoal is a natural substance made by heating wood to a high temperature. If you look at the bottom of a fire pit, you’ll see a bed of coals. Now, you could chew on or powder this kind of char for first aid purposes, like nausea or to put on a wound. However, activated charcoal is far more efficient.
Never use commercially prepared charcoal briquettes for medicinal purposes. Those have been treated chemically, and are not safe or appropriate for ingestion or topical use.
Charcoal works by attracting toxic substances to it’s surface through a process known as adsorption. This differs from absorption which is where one substance is taken into another substance. With adsorption, it is surface-level only. The more surface area there is, the greater the ability to adsorb.
Activated charcoal’s surface has been “activated” by the creation of additional divets, pockets, and holes, thereby creating more surface area. This type of the char is made with either:
- Extremely high heat, much higher than normal charcoal is made.
- A combination of high heat and a chemical, like calcium chloride (could be extracted from lime)
First Aid Uses for Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal attracts and collects harmful substances to its surface. This is what allows activated charcoal to whiten teeth, draw out a splinter in drawing salves (also called “black salves”), and adsorb ingested poisons.
This also means it can interfere with medications. Do not take any necessary medications for 2 hours after taking activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is not intended for ongoing use. Taking too much can cause consptipation, even blockage, which can be a medical emergency.
With over 4000 substances that charcoal adsorbs effectively, it is easier to list what charcoal does not adsorb effectively. These include:
- Alcohol (beer, wine, hard liquor, ethyl alcohol, ethanol, methanol, etc.)
- Ethylene glycol
- Mineral acids
- Alkaline substaces (most degreasing, cleaning products)
For first aid purposes, activated charcoal is used for poisonings and envenomation, as well as on infected wounds. This is accomplished through either ingestion or topical applications. Let’s take a look at each.
Ingesting Activated Charcoal
If you have access to a poison control center or other emergency care, call on them for help first. They can better advise you as to when activated charcoal, milk , or Ipecac would be better to use, or get you emergency help when necessary. If that level of help is not available, charcoal is my first pick for poisonings, foodborne or waterborne pathogens, nausea, and diarrhea.
It’s my first pick because of the number of substances it adsorbs, and it is very affordable. I buy it in bulk from the Bulk Herb Store, but you can also find it where aquarium supplies are sold. If you visit that link, there’s a video on making capsules one at a time without a machine. It is both tedius and messy. A machine doesn’t make the process neat and clean (more on that below), but it does speed up the process and cut down on the mess.
Activated charcoal can be taken by capsule or by mixing the powder into water. Capsules eliminate the unpleasant aspects of drinking activated charcoal water. While it doesn’t have much of a flavor, mixing the powder in water makes a black liquid that can look very intimidating, especially to children. It also has a slight grainy texture, a bit like extremely fine sand.
If you have a child that cannot swallow a capsule, give the loose powder in water. To make it easier, use an opaque cup, one that you cannot see through at all is ideal, that also has a lid and a straw. That will minimize the apprehension and mouthfeel.
Dosages will vary depending upon age of the individual and the purpose for taking the activate charcoal. For the average intestinal infection, or for something like a person who is intollerant to gluten accidentally eating something with gluten, 2-5 capsules should be enough to improve symptoms, depending on the person.
However, for more serious poisonings, such as strychnine, arsenic, or mercury, larger doses would be necessary. The Mayo Clinic suggests the following doses:
- For infants under 1 year: 10-25 grams mixed in water (capsules are not recommended- use a pipette to drop liquid into mouth)
- For children 1-12 years: 25-50 grams mixed in water (approimatly 16-32 size 00 capsules)
- For teen and adults: 25-100 grams mixed in water (approximately 16-64 size 00 capsules)
For the larger amounts, it may be easier to measure the loose powder with a scale and mix with water to drink than trying to count out 64 capsules. But, if the person is just too put off on the looks or taste of the charcoal slurry, capsules or opaque container it is.
Topical Use of Activated Charcoal
When it comes to venomous bites and stings, there is no guarantees with either modern medicine or natural medicine. However, if you can get activated charcoal on the bite or sting, you have a decent chance of the charcoal adsorbing that venom. This could be life-saving if medical help is not nearby or if help will not be on the way.
In addition to venomous bites and stings, activated charcoal is useful in wound care whenever the wound whenever you suspect that micro-organisms or debris may have gotten into the wound, especially if the wound is already showing signs of infection (redness, inflammation, pain, heat).
Mix activated charcoal and water in a bowl to make a paste. Apply this paste to a cloth bandage or multiple layers of gauze bandage, and then wrap with either athletic tape or a compression bandage. Be careful not to add too much water or to mix too vigorously, or you will make a royal mess.
I prefer to open capsules two at a time and add water via a plastic pipette. These disposable plastic pipettes can be used for so many purposes, like administering tinctures and flushing out a wound, while allowing you to use a clean pipette each time. The rubber bulbs on the glass pipettes are notorious for degrading over time, and can cause your precious liquid medicines to leak all over your first aid/trauma kit. Used in conjuction with the Nalgene bottles for tinctures, you have a durable, clean way to transport your herbal medicines without worry if your kit gets knocked around a bit, or even neglected (a good thing as it hopefully means that everyone was healthy) over time. Save your pretty glass bottles and droppers for your home apothecary.
Only add water a few drops at a time and stir carefully so you don’t have a cloud of charcoal go “poof” into your face and on all of you surfaces. Once you have made a paste with a spreadable consistency that’s a little on the loose side (for better penetration into the dermal layers), but not so loose that it will leak everywhere, spread it on the bandage and apply to the cleaned wound. A compression bandage, or my new favorite self-adhesive sensi wrap, will help to hold this bandage and poultice in place.
Activated charcoal is an essential part of a complete first aid/trauma kit in both loose and capsule form. Effective at adsorbing over 4000 different toxic substances, it is truly cheap, life-saving medicine. If you wish to reproduce activated charcoal in a post-collapse situation, it’s possible. Some charred wood and a llittle understanding of chemistry on how to extract the calcium chloride from limestone will ensure an ongoing supply of activated charcoal in the worst of times when it will be needed the most.
I found this YouTube video on the process. It doesn’t look like it’s quite as good of a product as the commercially-made stuff, but I’m sure the process can be improved, and great information in case you need to make your own.