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Laxatives Use and Side Effects

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

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 may negatively affect bowel function.

Laxatives come as pills, capsules, liquids, foods, gums, suppositories, and enemas and most laxatives are intended for short-term use.

Fast Facts On Laxatives

  • Laxatives are drugs that relieve constipation by loosening stools and inducing a bowel movement.
  • Constipation is when stools become very solid, making them difficult or painful to pass.
  • Laxatives are commonly used to relieve constipation, and most are available without the need for any prescription.
  • Some foods have a laxative effect.
  • Improving diet and increasing exercise can help reduce constipation.

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Types of Laxatives

Common types of laxatives include:

Bulking Agents:

This type of laxatives increases the water content and bulk of the stool, making it move more easily through the intestinal tract. They typically take 12 to 72 hours to work, and examples include psyllium (Metamucil); methylcellulose (Citrucel); and high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Lubricant Laxatives:

This type makes stool slippery, so it moves through the intestine more easily and quickly. They typically take 6 – 8 hours to work, and mineral oil is a typical example.

Emollient Laxatives:

These types are stool softeners and cause fats and water to penetrate the stool, making it move more easily through the digestive system.

They usually take 12 to 72 hours to work, and examples include Colace and Diocto.

Stimulant Laxatives:

These stimulate the lining of the intestine to propel the stool along and provide very quick relief. However, they should only be used occasionally. Examples include Ex-Lax, Senokot, Correctol, and Dulcolax.

Osmotic and Hyperosmolar Laxatives: 

This type draws fluids into the intestine from the surrounding tissues, making the stool softer and easier to pass. They may take 30 minutes to six hours to work, depending on the type, and examples include Fleet Phospho-Soda, Milk of Magnesia, lactulose, and Miralax.

Laxative Side Effects

The most common side effects of laxatives include

  • bloating,
  • gassiness, and
  • Abdominal pain.

Laxative Abuse

Laxative abuse takes place when a person takes higher or more frequent doses of laxatives that are recommended.

Abusing laxative is dangerous and can result in serious or life-threatening complications, such as:

  • Laxative dependence
  • Electrolyte and mineral imbalances
  • Severe dehydration
  • Chronic constipation
  • Increased colon cancer risk, and
  • Internal organ damage

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers that some over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives are dangerous even when instructions are followed properly.

Overuse of laxatives may cause serious side effects, and you should call your doctor immediately if you have:

  • Dizziness
  • Bloody stools
  • Severe cramps or pain
  • Weakness or unusual tiredness
  • Rectal bleeding
  • baffling changes in bowel patterns
  • Constipation that lasts longer than seven days despite making use of laxatives

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Risks Of Laxative Use

Interaction With Medications:

Your medical history or current medications may limit your laxative options, since laxatives can interact with some antibiotics, and certain heart and bone medications. Read labels carefully, and if possible, talk with your doctor. Don’t exceed recommended dosages unless you are instructed by your doctor.

Complicating Conditions

If you frequently use laxatives for weeks or months, they can decrease your colon’s ability to contract and actually worsen constipation, and the use of laxative can be dangerous if constipation is caused by a serious condition, such as appendicitis or a bowel obstruction.

Precautions For Pregnant Women And Children

Laxatives should not be given to children who are under the age of 6 without a doctor’s recommendation, and if you’re pregnant, ask your doctor before using laxatives.

Bulk-forming laxatives and stool softeners are generally safe to use during pregnancy, but stimulant laxatives may be damaging.

For new mothers, consult your doctor before using laxatives, as some ingredients may pass into breast milk and cause diarrhea in nursing infants.

Prevent Constipation

Drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated when taking a laxative, and before turning to laxatives, try these lifestyle changes to help with constipation:

  • Eat fiber-rich foods, such as wheat bran, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
  • Drink plenty of fluids daily.
  • Exercise regularly.

Take laxatives with caution, and 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.



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