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Illinois Poison Center Recommends New Treatment for Poisoning

For Immediate Release Contact: Amanda Widtfetdt 312-906-6138
March 10, 1998 Debra Ponczek 312-906-6142

Now Available for Home Use

A trip to the local pharmacy and an expense of less than $5 could save a child's life. The Illinois Poison Center (IPC) is encouraging parents to purchase activated charcoal, which is now recommended in many poisoning cases to prevent the absorption of poisoning into the bloodstream. While activated charcoal has been successfully used in emergency rooms for decades, it only recently has become available for home use. "The public has not yet been educated about activated charcoal," said IPC Associate Director Tony Burda, R.Phd, ABAT. "So when parents call us because their child has swallowed a poisonous substance, and the poison is one that would respond well to activated charcoal, we're not able to recommend it as often as we'd like because it's not something people have on hand. We want to change that."

For decades, poison control centers have urged parents to stock syrup of ipecac (a non-prescriptive drug used to induce vomiting), which has become fairly common in family medicine cabinets. "We are not abandoning our long-standing recommendation of keeping ipecac in the home, because it is often recommended in poisonings from toxic plants or chewable vitamins with iron," said Burda. However, activated charcoal (a specially processed form of charcoal in which the large surface area of the charcoal particles acts like a sponge and "absorbs" the poison or drug) is the best option for overdoses of many substances. These include: cough and cold medicines with antihistamines or cough suppressants; sedatives and muscle relaxants; narcotics such as pain killers with codeine; phenols such as household disinfectant cleaners; and drugs which cause rapid seizures, such as topical rubs that contain camphor for aches and pains.

Data collected in the Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS) compiled by American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) reflects the increased usage of activated charcoal. In 1983, ipecac was given in 13.4 percent of poisonings, while activated charcoal was given in only 4 percent of cases. By 1996, ipecac use declined to 1.8 percent of poisonings (an 86 percent drop), while use of activated charcoal rose to 7.3 percent (an 82 percent increase).

Activated charcoal is available, usually for less than $5, in 15-gram container sizes and is offered as either a slurry of charcoal pre-mixed in water, or as a container into which water or soda pop is added. It is a good idea to purchase enough containers to treat each child in the family. Contrary to popular belief, charcoal tablets or capsules used for treatment of intestinal gas, burnt toast, pharred wood and charcoal briquettes are not effective substitutes for activated charcoal. "If your community pharmacy does not stock over-the-counter activated charcoal, ask the pharmacist to order it from a wholesaler or manufacturer," advises Burda.

Having activated charcoal at home is a good idea so that when its use is advised, it can be taken almost immediately to prevent the absorption of poison into the blood. Also, activated charcoal is safer than ipecac in situations where there is a risk of becoming very drowsy or experiencing convulsion. Activated charcoal is not recommended for treating poisonings related to corrosive products such as acids or alkali.

Activated charcoal looks unappetizing, but has virtually no taste. Parents should read the instructions on the activated charcoal container after bringing it home, as it may provide tips on how to persuade children to swallow it. One suggestion is to prevent children from seeing the black mixture as they drink it. As with syrup of ipecac, activated charcoal should be kept out of reach of children. It is also a good idea to write the poison center's hotline number on the activated charcoal package.

Activated charcoal should never be used without the advice of a poison control center or physician, Burda warned. The Illinois Poison Center's toll free number is 1-800-942-5969 (TDD: 312-906-6185)

For free "Mr. Yuk" Stickers and a brochure featuring poison prevention tips, send a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope (with 64 cents postage) to Illinois Poison Center, 222 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 1900, Chicago Illinois 60606.

The Illinois Poison Center (IPC) operates a toll-free 800 number to dispense advice to Illinois residents and health care professionals about the treatment of poisoning, overdoses, drug interactions, venomous bites and other poison related concerns. It is administered by the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council (MCHC), a membership and service association composed of more that 115 hospitals and health care organizations working together to improve the quality of health care services in the metropolitan Chicago area.

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