Combination laxatives: Check labels carefully

Some products combine different types of laxatives, such as a stimulant and a stool softener. Combination products may not be any more effective than are single-ingredient products. But they may be more likely to cause side effects because of their multiple ingredients. Read labels carefully to see how many types of laxatives a product contains.

Risks of laxative use

Interaction with medications
Your medical history and other medications you're taking may limit your laxative options. Laxatives can interact with blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), antibiotics such as tetracycline, and certain heart and bone medications. Before using any laxative, read the label carefully. If you're not sure whether a particular laxative is right for you, ask your pharmacist or doctor. Don't exceed recommended dosages unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

Complicating conditions
Just because laxatives are available without a prescription doesn't mean that they're without risk. Laxative use can be dangerous if constipation is caused by a serious condition, such as appendicitis or a bowel obstruction. If you frequently use certain laxatives over a period of weeks or months, they can decrease your colon's natural ability to contract and actually worsen constipation.

Precautions for pregnant women and children
Don't give children under age 6 laxatives without a doctor's recommendation. If you're pregnant, get your doctor's advice before using laxatives. Bulk-forming laxatives and stool softeners are generally safe to use during pregnancy, but stronger laxatives can harm you or your baby. The stimulant laxative castor oil, for example, can cause uterine contractions. If you've recently given birth, consult your doctor before using laxatives. Although they're usually safe to use during breast-feeding, some ingredients may pass into breast milk and cause diarrhea in nursing infants.

Don't be lax about laxatives

Call your doctor immediately if you have bloody stools, severe cramps, pain, weakness, dizziness, unusual tiredness or rectal bleeding. You should also see a doctor if you have unexplained changes in bowel patterns or habits or if constipation lasts longer than seven days despite laxative use. If you're dependent on laxatives to have a bowel movement, ask your doctor for suggestions on how to gradually withdraw from them and restore your colon's natural ability to contract.

Apr. 23, 2011 See more In-depth