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Laxatives are products that promote bowel movements.


Laxatives are used to treat constipation - the passage of small amounts of hard, dry stools, usually fewer than three times a week. People who are constipated may find it difficult and even painful to have bowel movements. They may also feel bloated, sluggish, and generally uncomfortable and may have other symptoms such as a dull headache and low back pain. But these symptoms do not always mean that laxatives are necessary. A great deal of misunderstanding exists about their use.

Many people believe that they are constipated and should take a laxative if they do not have a bowel movement every day or if their stools are sometimes hard. However, a wide range in normal bowel habits exists, depending on the individual and his or her diet. Some people have bowel movements as often as three times a day, some only three times a week. Anything within this range is considered normal. In addition, some people's stools are naturally firmer than others.

Occasional constipation can often be treated without laxatives. Increasing the amount of fiber in the diet, drinking enough water and other liquids, such as fruit and vegetable juices, exercising regularly, and setting aside time every day to have a bowel movement are the first steps. These measures will also help prevent constipation from occurring again. If these methods do not relieve the problem, a physician may suggest using a laxative for a limited time. A physician should always be the one to decide when a laxative is needed and which type of laxative should be used.


Laxatives come in various forms - liquids, tablets, suppositories, powders, granules, capsules, chewing gum, chocolate-flavored wafers, and caramels. The basic types of laxatives are bulk-forming laxatives, lubricant laxatives, stool softeners (also called emollient laxatives), and stimulant laxatives.

Bulk-forming Laxatives

Bulk-forming laxatives contain materials, such as cellulose and psyllium, that pass through the digestive tract without being digested. In the intestines, these materials absorb liquid and swell, making the stool soft, bulky, and easier to pass. The bulky stool then stimulates the bowel to move. Laxatives in this group include such brands as FiberCon, Fiberall, and Metamucil.

Lubricant Laxatives

Mineral oil is the mostly widely used Lubricant Laxative. Taken by mouth, the oil coats the stool. This keeps the stool moist and soft and makes it easier to pass. Lubricant laxatives are often used for patients who need to avoid straining - after abdominal surgery, for example.

Stool Softeners (emollient laxatives)

As their name suggests, Stool Softeners make stools softer and easier to pass by increasing their moisture content. This type of laxative does not really stimulate bowel movements, but it makes it possible to have bowel movements without straining. Stool Softeners are best used to prevent constipation in people who need to avoid straining - because of recent surgery, for example. However, they are not very effective at treating existing constipation. Docusate (Colace, Sof-Lax) is an example of a stool softener.

Stimulant Laxatives

Ingredients in these laxatives stimulate muscles and nerves in the intestines. This helps move the stool along. Although these laxatives are popular and effective, they should be used with care, as they are more likely than other types to cause side effects. They may also work more quickly and powerfully than other laxatives. Examples of stimulant laxatives are Bisacodyl (Correctol) and Senna (Senokot).

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