Activated Charcoal for Treating Traveller’s Diarrhea – Does it Work?
There has been a lot of hype about the use of activated charcoal to treat traveller’s diarrhea. We are often asked about activated charcoal by travellers that we see at TravelSafe Clinic. How effective is it?
The use of activated charcoal as an effective treatment for traveller’s diarrhea has not been scientifically proven. Below we’ll outline how activated charcoal works and things to keep in mind if you choose to add this to your travel kit.
What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a fine black powder which is produced by heating natural sources of carbon such as wood, peat, coconut shells, or sawdust, to very high temperatures. This process of “activation” releases the charcoal of previously bonded molecules to free up bonding sites and causes the charcoal to become more porous.
How Does It Work?
Activated charcoal prevents the absorption of toxins and chemicals in the stomach and gut by readily binding to these substances. Activated charcoal is not absorbed by the body so the substances that bind to the charcoal are eliminated by the body through the feces. It has been widely used to treat poisonings and overdoses by binding to most drugs and toxins and eliminating them from the body.
Treating Traveller’s Diarrhea
Activated charcoal has been used as a travel remedy to treat traveller’s diarrhea worldwide. In theory the charcoal would bind to the toxins or bacteria that is causing the diarrhea, then eliminate them from the body. However, there is a lack of scientific research to support using charcoal for this purpose. In other words – it hasn’t been determined whether it is effective or not.
Are there Risks?
Some travellers may choose to add activated charcoal to their travel medical kit despite its lack of proven effectiveness. Activated charcoal is generally safe to use, with little to no risk of side effects. If side effects do occur, they can include vomiting, constipation, black stool, diarrhea, and more rarely fecal impaction or GI obstruction. Talk to your health care provider before using activated charcoal, especially if you have any medical conditions that affect your GI system. Also talk to your health care provider if you take regular medications as the charcoal may bind to these medications and reduce their effectiveness.
TravelSafe Clinical Educator – Kristin Cain, RN, BSc, MSc(A)