Over-the-counter laxatives for constipation: Use with caution
Laxatives can help relieve and prevent constipation. But not all laxatives are safe for long-term use. Overuse of certain laxatives can lead to dependency and decreased bowel function.By Mayo Clinic Staff
If you've ever been constipated, you may have tried over-the-counter laxatives. A number of factors — including a poor diet, physical inactivity and some medications — can disrupt normal bowel function and cause constipation.
Many safe, effective over-the-counter laxatives are available to treat occasional constipation in a variety of ways. However, it's very important to read the label directions carefully and to use them as directed. Overuse of laxatives may cause serious side effects.
Call your doctor immediately if you have:
- Bloody stools
- Severe cramps or pain
- Weakness or unusual tiredness
- Rectal bleeding
- Unexplained changes in bowel patterns
- Constipation that lasts longer than seven days despite laxative use
Before trying laxatives
How often you have a bowel movement varies, but people normally have as many as three bowel movements a day to as few as three a week. You may be constipated if you have fewer bowel movements than are normal for you. In addition, constipation may involve stools that are difficult to pass because they're hard, dry or small.
However, before turning to laxatives, try these lifestyle changes to help with constipation:
- Eat fiber-rich foods, such as wheat bran, fresh fruits and vegetables, and oats.
- Drink plenty of fluids daily.
- Exercise regularly.
Lifestyle improvements relieve constipation for many people, but if problems continue despite these changes, your next choice may be a mild laxative.
How laxatives relieve constipation
Laxatives work in different ways, and the effectiveness of each laxative type varies from person to person. In general, bulk-forming laxatives, also referred to as fiber supplements, are the gentlest on your body and safest to use long term. Metamucil and Citrucel fall into this category.
Here are some examples of types of laxatives. Even though many laxatives are available over-the-counter, it's best to talk to your doctor about laxative use and which kind may be best for you.
|Type of laxative (brand examples)
||How they work
|Oral osmotics (Phillips' Milk of Magnesia, Miralax)
||Draw water into the colon to allow easier passage of stool
||Bloating, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, gas, increased thirst
|Oral bulk formers (Benefiber, Citrucel, FiberCon, Metamucil)
||Absorb water to form soft, bulky stool, prompting normal contraction of intestinal muscles
||Bloating, gas, cramping or increased constipation if not taken with enough water
|Oral stool softeners (Colace, Surfak)
||Add moisture to stool to allow strain-free bowel movements
||Electrolyte imbalance with prolonged use
|Oral stimulants (Dulcolax, Senokot)
||Trigger rhythmic contractions of intestinal muscles to eliminate stool
||Belching, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, urine discoloration with senna and cascara derivatives
|Rectal suppositories (Dulcolax, Pedia-Lax)
||Trigger rhythmic contractions of intestinal muscles and soften stool
||Rectal irritation, diarrhea, cramping
Oral laxatives may interfere with your body's absorption of some medications and nutrients. Some laxatives can lead to an electrolyte imbalance, especially after prolonged use. Electrolytes — which include calcium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and sodium — regulate a number of body functions. An electrolyte imbalance can cause abnormal heart rhythms, weakness, confusion and seizures.
June 06, 2017
See more In-depth
- Over-the-counter laxatives. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2014;312:1167.
- Constipation. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation. Accessed Jan. 18, 2017.
- Constipation and defecation problems. American Gastroenterological Association. http://patients.gi.org/topics/constipation-and-defection-problems/. Accessed Jan. 18, 2017.
- Wald A. Management of chronic constipation in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Jan. 18, 2017.
- Laxative (oral route). Micromedex 2.0 Healthcare Series. http://www.micromedexsolutions.com. Accessed Jan. 18, 2017.