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Safely Using Laxatives for Constipation

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Emollient Laxatives (Stool Softeners)

Commonly known as "stool softeners," emollient laxatives such as Colace (or generic Colace) contain docusate, a surfactant that helps to "wet" and soften the stool. Although it might take a week or longer for emollient laxatives to be effective, they are frequently used by those who are recovering from surgery, women who have just given birth, or individuals with hemorrhoids.

Osmotic and Hyperosmolar Laxatives

"The wetter the better," is the osmotic laxative's mission. These products include Fleet Phospho-Soda, Milk of Magnesia or MOM, Kristalose, and Miralax -- all hydrating agents that draw fluids into the intestine from the surrounding tissues. More water in the intestine results in softer stools that are easier to pass. It's imperative to drink a lot of water with osmotic and hyperosmolar laxatives, not only for the laxative to be effective, but to decrease the possibility of gas and cramps.

Stimulant Laxatives

If you're completely miserable and need almost instantaneous relief from constipation, the stimulant laxatives will do the job. This type of laxative works by stimulating the lining of the intestine, thereby accelerating the stool's journey through the colon. Stimulant laxatives also increase a stool's hydration. Some popular brands include Ex-Lax, Senokot, Correctol, Dulcolax, and Feen-a-Mint. Prunes (dried plums) are also an effective colonic stimulant and taste good, too. Note: Don't use stimulant laxatives daily or regularly. This type of laxative may weaken the body's natural ability to defecate and cause laxative dependency. One more caveat: the stimulant laxatives may cause cramping and diarrhea.

Use Laxatives Safely and Sparingly

When using a laxative to cure occasional constipation, remember these tips:

  • If you need to use laxatives to be "regular," use fiber first.
  • Drink fluids and stay well hydrated when using laxatives. Avoid regular use of stimulant laxatives. They can limit your body's ability to absorb vitamin D and calcium.
  • If your problem with constipation continues, see your doctor. Constipation may be a warning sign of a more serious problem such as colon cancer, diabetes, or hypothyroidism, among others. Your doctor can evaluate your medical history, do a physical exam and lab tests, and determine the exact cause and solution for constipation.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on September 08, 2014
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