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Feasibility of prehospital treatment with activated charcoal: Who could we treat, who should we treat?
  1. G K Isbister,
  2. A H Dawson,
  3. I M Whyte
  1. Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Hospital, University of Newcastle, Waratah, Australia
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr G K Isbister, Level 5, Clinical Sciences Building, Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Edith Street, Waratah, NSW 2098, Australia; 


Objectives: To investigate the feasibility and potential risk benefit of prehospital administration of activated charcoal.

Methods: Review of deliberate self poisoning presentations to the emergency department (ED) of a toxicology unit by ambulance over six years. Data were extracted from a standardised prospective database of poisonings. Outcomes included: number of patients attended by ambulance and number arriving in emergency within one hour. Cases were stratified by ingestion type, based on toxicity and sedative activity.

Results: 2041 poisoning admissions were included. The median time to ambulance attendance was 1 h 23 min (IQR 37 min–3 h) and to hospital attendance was 2 h 15 min (IQR 1 h 25 min–4 h). In 774 cases (38%) ambulance attendance occurred within one hour, but in only 161 (8%) did ED attendance occur within one hour. Non-sedating, highly toxic substances were ingested in 55 cases, 24 (23 with GCS>14) with ambulance attendance, and five with ED attendance, within one hour. Conversely 439 patients ingested a less toxic, sedative agent, 160 with ambulance attendance, and 32 with ED attendance, within one hour. Limiting decontamination to patients ingesting highly toxic, non-sedating compounds (GCS<14) reduces the proportion requiring treatment to 23 of the 774 (3.0%), an additional 18 patients.

Conclusion: More patients could potentially be decontaminated if all patients attended by ambulance within one hour received charcoal. However, this would expose 128 patients with sedative, low risk poisonings to the risk of aspiration, and only treat 18 extra high risk poisonings. This small potential benefit of prehospital charcoal is unlikely to justify the expense in training and protocols required to implement it

  • activated charcoal
  • overdose
  • decontamination
  • poisoning

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  • Funding: none.

  • Conflicts of interest: none declared.