Laxatives And Diarrhea: Safe Or Not?

can I take a laxative if I have diarrhea

Diarrhea is a common side effect of laxatives, which are medicines that help treat constipation by softening stools or stimulating the bowels. Laxatives are typically used to relieve constipation, not diarrhea, and taking them when you have diarrhea can lead to further dehydration and intestinal issues. Therefore, it is generally not recommended to take laxatives if you have diarrhea. Instead, it is advised to try lifestyle changes such as improving your diet, increasing fluid intake, and staying physically active to alleviate constipation.

Characteristics Values
Should you take a laxative if you have diarrhea? No, laxatives are used to treat constipation, not diarrhea. Diarrhea is a side effect of taking laxatives.
What are laxatives used for? To treat constipation by softening hard stools or stimulating the bowels to get moving.
Types of laxatives Bulk-forming, osmotics, stool softeners, lubricants, and stimulants.
When to take laxatives Laxatives should be taken as directed to prevent side effects.
Overdose Laxative overdose occurs when someone takes more than the recommended amount.
Side effects Diarrhea, bloating, gas, abdominal cramping, nausea, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, intestinal obstruction.


Laxatives can cause diarrhoea, so why would you take one if you already have it?

Laxatives are medicines that help people have a bowel movement if they are constipated. They work by softening hard stools or stimulating the bowels to get moving. However, as well as their intended effect, laxatives can also cause diarrhoea, especially if you take too much. So why would you take a laxative if you already have diarrhoea?

Firstly, it's important to note that laxatives should only be used occasionally and for short periods of time. They are not a long-term solution for constipation and can cause side effects if overused. If you are experiencing diarrhoea and have recently taken a laxative, it could be that you have taken too much, and this is a side effect. In this case, you should stop taking the laxative and give your body time to recover.

However, there may be instances where a doctor recommends taking a laxative, even if you have diarrhoea. For example, if you are experiencing chronic constipation and have not found relief through lifestyle changes or other medications, a doctor might suggest a laxative as a short-term solution. In this case, they would advise you on how to take the laxative safely and minimise any side effects, such as diarrhoea.

It's also worth noting that some people misuse laxatives, believing that they can be used to lose weight. This is not true, and it can lead to serious health complications, including diarrhoea. If you or someone you know is misusing laxatives, it's important to seek medical help.

In summary, laxatives can cause diarrhoea, and it may seem counterintuitive to take one if you already have diarrhoea. However, there may be instances where a doctor recommends a laxative as a short-term solution, and it's important to follow their advice. Additionally, if you are experiencing diarrhoea due to laxative misuse, stopping the laxatives and seeking medical help is crucial.

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What are the alternatives to laxatives?

While laxatives are a common way to relieve constipation, they are not always the best option. Laxatives can have side effects, and in some cases, they can worsen constipation or lead to other health issues.

  • Improving your diet: Eating high-fibre foods and drinking plenty of fluids can help to relieve constipation. Fibre-rich foods include legumes, whole grains, cooked vegetables, berries, flaxseed, chia seeds, leafy greens, prunes, and fruits with edible skins.
  • Increasing physical activity: Exercise can help to get your digestive system moving and can be a natural way to relieve constipation.
  • Probiotics: Taking probiotics can help to regulate your digestive system and improve constipation.
  • Natural laxatives: Some natural laxatives include drinking coffee, eating fibre-rich foods, and using saline laxatives such as magnesium citrate. However, it is important to note that natural laxatives may not work as well as over-the-counter laxatives, especially for severe constipation.
  • Bulking agents: Adding bulking agents such as bran to your diet can help to relieve constipation.
  • Lifestyle changes: Making lifestyle changes, such as increasing your daily fibre intake and drinking more water, can help to prevent constipation.

It is important to remember that if you are experiencing constipation, you should first try lifestyle changes and natural remedies before resorting to laxatives. If your constipation is chronic or persistent, you should consult a doctor for advice.

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What are the side effects of laxatives?

Laxatives are a common medication used to treat constipation and produce bowel movements. They are available over the counter and by prescription. While they are generally safe, they can cause side effects, particularly if overused or taken for long periods.

The side effects of laxatives depend on the type used. Bulk-forming laxatives, for example, are considered the gentlest and least likely to cause side effects. Osmotic laxatives, which pull water from the body to the colon, can cause dehydration if users don't drink enough water. Lubricant laxatives can cause intestinal blockage if not taken with enough water.

Some common side effects of laxatives include:

  • Bloating and gas
  • Dehydration, which can cause lightheadedness, headaches, darker urine, tremors, weakness, blurry vision, and kidney damage
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Chronic constipation
  • Intestinal blockage

Overuse of laxatives can lead to laxative dependency, where the colon stops reacting to usual doses, requiring larger and larger doses. It can also cause the intestines to lose muscle and nerve response. Laxative misuse can also lead to health complications such as an imbalance of electrolytes and minerals, dehydration, and internal organ damage.

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What types of laxatives are there?

It is not advisable to take laxatives if you have diarrhea. Laxatives are used to treat constipation, which is the opposite of diarrhea. They are designed to help you have a bowel movement if you are constipated.

There are several types of laxatives available, and they work in different ways to treat constipation. Here is a list of the most common types:

Bulk-forming laxatives

Also known as fiber supplements, these laxatives increase the bulk or weight of stools by adding soluble fiber, which draws water from the body into the stool, making it bigger, softer, and easier to pass. They are considered gentle and are usually recommended as the first option unless a healthcare provider suggests otherwise. They typically take 12 to 72 hours to start working. Examples include:

  • Psyllium (Metamucil®)
  • Polycarbophil (FiberCon®)
  • Methylcellulose (Citrucel®)
  • Fybogel (ispaghula husk)

Osmotic laxatives

Osmotic laxatives pull water from the body into the colon, softening the stool and making it easier to pass. They may take up to 2-3 days to start working. Examples include:

  • Polyethylene glycol (Gavilax®, MiraLAX®)
  • Magnesium hydroxide solution (Dulcolax®, Ex-Lax®, Phillips'® Milk of Magnesia)
  • Glycerin (Colace Glycerin®, Fleet Pedia-Lax®)
  • Lactulose (Duphalac®, Lactugal)
  • Macrogol (Movicol, Laxido, CosmoCol, Molaxole, Molative)

Stool softener laxatives

Also called emollient laxatives, these laxatives increase the water and fat content in the stool, making it softer. They typically work within 12 to 72 hours. An example is docusate (Colace®).

Lubricant laxatives

Lubricant laxatives coat the colon, making it slippery and preventing the absorption of water from the stool, thus keeping it soft. An example is mineral oil.

Stimulant laxatives

Stimulant laxatives activate the nerves controlling the muscles in the colon, forcing it to move the stool along. They are recommended if other over-the-counter types have not been effective. They usually take effect within 6 to 12 hours. Examples include:

  • Bisacodyl (Dulcolax®)
  • Senna (Fletcher's® Laxative, Senokot)

Prescription-only laxatives

If over-the-counter laxatives are ineffective or if constipation is chronic and associated with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a prescription laxative may be needed. Some examples include:

  • Lactulose (Duphalac®)
  • Linaclotide (Linzess®)
  • Lubiprostone (Amitiza®)
  • Prucalopride (Prudac®, Motegrity®)
  • Plecanatide (Trulance®)


When should you not take laxatives?

Laxatives are a type of medicine that can treat constipation. They are available over the counter and on prescription. However, there are several instances in which you should not take laxatives.

Firstly, laxatives should not be taken daily. Chronic laxative use can lead to the colon becoming "atonic" or "worn out", resulting in worsening constipation. This can lead to laxative dependence, with larger and larger doses being required.

Secondly, laxatives should be avoided if you are travelling, as access to a bathroom may be problematic. In particular, stimulant, osmotic, and lubricant laxatives should be avoided before travel as they work quickly and have more side effects.

Thirdly, laxatives should not be taken if you are prone to bowel obstructions. Bowel obstructions can occur from scar tissue or adhesions from previous abdominal surgery.

Additionally, laxatives should be used cautiously or avoided during pregnancy. While constipation is common during pregnancy due to hormonal changes, bulk agents and stool softeners are preferred over osmotic and stimulant laxatives, which can cause unpleasant side effects such as excessive gas, bloating, intestinal cramping, and electrolyte imbalance.

Laxatives should also be avoided if you have chronic kidney disease or heart disease, as they can lead to dehydration or a mineral imbalance. Furthermore, if you are taking medications, you should exercise caution when using laxatives as they may interfere with medication absorption.

Finally, laxatives should not be taken to lose weight. This is a form of abuse that can lead to health complications such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and internal organ damage.

Frequently asked questions

No, you should not take a laxative if you have diarrhea. Laxatives are meant to treat constipation and taking them when you have diarrhea can lead to an overdose.

The most common symptoms of a laxative overdose are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance are also common, especially in children.

If you or someone you know has overdosed on laxatives, call your local emergency number or poison control center immediately. Have the person's age, weight, the name and amount of the product ingested, and the time it was swallowed ready to share with emergency services.

Yes, increasing your daily fiber intake, adding bulking agents such as bran to your diet, and staying physically active can help alleviate constipation. Improving your diet and increasing your activity can also help reduce constipation and decrease the need for laxatives.

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