Should I Take a Laxative for Constipation?
Most people who are mildly constipated do not need laxatives. However, for those who have made dietary and lifestyle changes and who are still constipated, doctors may recommend laxatives or enemas for a limited time. These constipation treatments can help retrain a chronically sluggish bowel. For children, short-term treatment with laxatives, along with retraining to establish regular bowel habits, also helps prevent constipation.
A doctor should determine when a person needs a laxative and which form is best. Laxatives taken by mouth are available in liquid, tablet, gum, powder, and granule forms. They work in various ways, including:
- Bulk-forming laxatives
- Stool softeners
- Saline laxatives.
Bulk-forming laxatives are generally considered the safest, but can interfere with absorption of some medicines. These laxatives, also known as fiber supplements, are taken with water. They absorb water in the intestine and make the stool softer. Brand names include Metamucil®, Citrucel®, Konsyl®, and Serutan®.
Stimulants cause rhythmic muscle contractions in the intestines. Brand names include Correctol®, Dulcolax®, Purge®, and Senokot®. Studies suggest that phenolphthalein, an ingredient in some stimulant laxatives, might increase a person's risk for cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a ban on all over-the-counter products containing phenolphthalein. Most laxative makers have replaced or plan to replace phenolphthalein with a safer ingredient.