Laxatives for constipation: Types, side effects, and misuse

Laxatives are a type of medicine that helps a person empty their bowels. They are generally used to relieve constipation. Most are available to buy from over-the-counter or online and without a prescription.

Laxatives can be taken orally (by mouth) in the form of liquids, tablets, or capsules. They can also be taken through the rectum – for example, suppositories or enemas.

Some people need to move their bowels 2-3 times a day, while others go 2-3 times a week; there is no “normal” number of times. It is more important to notice changes to bowel habits.

Constipation is when stools become hard, making them difficult or painful to pass.

Fast facts on laxatives:

Laxatives are commonly used to relieve constipation.

Most are available without the need for any prescription.

Some foods are known to have a laxative effect.

Improving diet and increasing exercise can help reduce constipation, and therefore reduce the need for laxatives.

Constipation and how laxatives help

Laxatives are often used to relieve constipation, a common gastrointestinal complaint.
Laxatives are often used to relieve constipation, a common gastrointestinal complaint.

Constipation can cause cramps in the abdomen and can make people feel bloated or sick. It can be separated into two different types:

Primary constipation – slow intestinal movements caused by an anatomical issue. This is often associated with not consuming enough fiber or not drinking enough fluids.

Secondary constipation – associated with a metabolic disease (such as diabetes), neurologic diseases (stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis), connective tissue disorders, or eating disorders.

Some medications can also contribute to constipation; these include antidepressants, iron, bismuth, anticholinergics, opioids, antacids, calcium channel blockers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), sympathomimetics, and antipsychotics.

Negative side effects include bloating, feeling sick, and abdominal discomfort.
Negative side effects include bloating, feeling sick, and abdominal discomfort.

Like any medication, laxatives can have side effects. Exactly what side effects a person will experience will depend on what type they are taking.

There are some common side effects, which include:

flatulence

cramps in the abdomen

feeling sick

bloating

dehydration – can cause light-headedness, headaches, and darker urine

Most side effects will disappear once a patient stops taking the medication; they can mostly be avoided by starting on a low dose and increasing the dose gradually.

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