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Nonprescription Medicines and Products - Bulking Agents, Stool Softeners, and Laxatives

There are four types of products used to prevent or treat constipation: bulking agents, stool softeners, osmotic laxatives, and stimulant laxatives.

Bulking agents, such as bran or psyllium (found in Metamucil, for example) ease constipation by increasing the volume of stool and making it easier to pass. Regular use of bulking agents is safe and helps make them more effective.

Recommended Related to Digestive Disorders

Diarrhea and Lactose Intolerance: When Dairy Is the Problem

Milk may do a body good, but not if you’re one of 30 million to 50 million people who suffers from lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance results from an inability to digest the natural sugar (lactose) found in milk and milk products. Lactose intolerance symptoms can include bloating, diarrhea, gas, and cramping. But there are ways to manage lactose intolerance while reaping the nutritional benefits of dairy products.

Read the Diarrhea and Lactose Intolerance: When Dairy Is the Problem article > >

Stool softeners (such as Colace and Docusate Calcium) soften the stool, making it easier to pass. Stool softeners can be most effective if you drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Osmotic laxatives, such as Fleet Phospho-Soda, Milk of Magnesia, or Miralax, and nonabsorbable sugars (such as lactulose or sorbitol), hold fluids in the intestine. They also draw fluids into the intestine from other tissue and blood vessels. This extra fluid in the intestines makes the stool softer and easier to pass. Drink plenty of water when you use this type of laxative.

Stimulant laxatives (such as Correctol, Ex-Lax, and Senokot) make stool move faster through the intestines by irritating the lining of the intestines. Regular use of stimulant laxatives is not recommended. Stimulant laxatives change the tone and feeling in the large intestine, and you can become dependent on using laxatives all the time to have a bowel movement.

There are many other ways to treat constipation, such as drinking more water. For more information, see the topics Constipation, Age 12 and Older and Constipation, Age 11 and Younger.


  • Take any laxative or bulking agent with plenty of water or other liquids.
  • Do not take laxatives regularly. They change the tone and feeling in the large intestine. And you can become dependent on using them all the time to have a bowel movement. If you need help having regular bowel movements, use a bulking agent.
  • Regular use of laxatives may change your body's ability to absorb vitamin D and calcium. This can lead to weakened bones.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: September 09, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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