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Relieving Chronic Constipation

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How Long Should You Take Over-the-Counter Constipation Treatments?

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP

Store-bought laxatives can relieve constipation, but sometimes you need a doctor’s care instead.

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Constipation is a common digestive health concern. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), 16% of adults have constipation symptoms, such as hard, painful stools or fewer than three bowel movements per week. The number of affected adults doubles after adults are 60 years old.

Over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives can be a safe and effective remedy for occasional constipation, but your body can become reliant on them if you take them for too long. Some laxatives can cause harm if misused. If constipation is a health concern for you, here’s what you need to know.

Understanding the differences in over-the-counter laxatives

Many constipation treatments are readily available at your local pharmacy without a prescription, but they’re not all the same. Several medications are available, each with different ways of working inside your body. These include:

  • Bulk laxatives: These are fiber supplements like methylcellulose (Citrucel) and psyllium (Metamucil). They change your stool’s size and consistency.
  • Stool softeners: As the name implies, these soften your stool, making it easier to pass. Docusate (Colace) is an example.
  • Osmotic agents: Treatments such as magnesium hydroxide (Phillips’ milk of magnesia) and polyethylene glycol (MiraLax) work by drawing water into your intestine.
  • Stimulant laxatives: These medications cause your intestines to contract and move stool along. Bisacodyl (Ducolax) and sennosides (Senokot) are examples.

The length of time you can safely take a laxative depends on the type. For example, fiber supplements are usually OK for extended periods, but avoiding taking stimulant laxatives for more than a few days is important.

Some laxatives can even cause potentially harmful changes in your electrolyte levels. Contact your doctor before taking laxatives for longer than a week.

Talking with your doctor about constipation

Let your doctor know if you have long lasting constipation or additional symptoms, such as abdominal pain or blood in your stool. Chronic constipation can share similarities with other medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome with constipation, which may have specific treatments.

If OTC medications aren’t effective for you, your doctor may order a prescription medication. Examples include:

  • lubiprostone (Amitiza)
  • linaclotide (Linzess)
  • plecanatide (Trulance)

The type of medication your doctor prescribes can depend on the underlying cause.

Also, a thorough medical and physical examination may identify a constipation cause that you and your doctor can address directly. For instance, certain drugs, such as some pain medications, can make it difficult to pass stool. Making a change in your pain medication, in this case, may help relieve your constipation.

Incorporating lifestyle changes to ease constipation

Some adjustments to your daily routine can help treat constipation and prevent it from developing in the future. Suggestions include the following:

  • Avoid dehydration: Increasing your intake of water and other hydrating fluids may make stool easier to pass.
  • Increase fiber: The NIDDK recommends getting between 22–34 grams of fiber per day. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are good sources.
  • Move your body: Regular exercise can improve constipation symptoms.
  • Practice bowel training: Your system may become more regular if you try to have a bowel movement at the same time each day.

Keep in mind, though many people may experience constipation, it’s important not to ignore it if it persists. Though OTC medications can be beneficial, it may be a good idea to get medical treatment for ongoing constipation.

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  1. Chang L, et al. (2022). Pharmacological management of irritable bowel syndrome with constipation (IBS-C). https://gastro.org/clinical-guidance/pharmacological-management-of-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-constipation-ibs-c/
  2. Constipation. (n.d.). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation
  3. Cuckoo C, et al. (2022). Constipation and defecation problems overview. https://gi.org/topics/constipation-and-defection-problems/
  4. Treating Constipation with Laxatives. (n.d.). https://badgut.org/information-centre/a-z-digestive-topics/treating-constipation-with-laxatives/

Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2023 Nov 16
View All Relieving Chronic Constipation Articles
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