Laxative Safety: How Often Is Too Often?

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Laxatives are a type of medicine used to treat constipation. While they are available over the counter, they are not recommended as a first-line treatment for constipation. Instead, healthcare professionals advise trying other methods first, such as increasing fibre intake, drinking more fluids, and exercising regularly. This is because laxatives can have unpleasant side effects, including dehydration, diarrhoea, intestinal obstruction, and electrolyte imbalances. They can also worsen constipation over time and lead to laxative dependence. Therefore, it is generally advised to only take laxatives occasionally and for up to a week at a time, and to stop taking them as soon as your constipation improves.

Characteristics Values
Recommended frequency of laxative use Ideally, laxatives should only be taken occasionally and for up to a week at a time.
When to stop taking laxatives Stop taking laxatives when your constipation improves.
When to consult a doctor If your constipation has not improved after taking laxatives for a week, speak to a doctor.
Alternative ways to prevent constipation Drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly, and including more fibre in your diet are better ways to prevent constipation than using laxatives.
Recommended daily fibre intake It is recommended to eat about 30g of fibre per day.
Types of laxatives Bulk-forming, osmotic, poo-softener, and stimulant laxatives.
How laxatives work Laxatives loosen stool and stimulate bowel movements by drawing water from the body into the bowel to soften the stool and make it easier to pass.
Side effects of laxatives Dehydration, diarrhoea, intestinal obstruction, and electrolyte imbalances.

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Laxatives are a type of medicine that can treat constipation

Laxatives work by softening stools or stimulating the bowels to get moving. They contain chemicals that help increase stool motility, bulk, and frequency, thereby relieving temporary constipation. However, they are not always recommended as a first-line treatment for constipation. This is because they can cause side effects such as bloating, gas, stomach cramps, and dehydration. In addition, laxative abuse can lead to severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, worsened constipation, increased risk of UTIs, and damage to organs that interact with the digestive tract.

There are several types of laxatives, including bulk-forming laxatives, osmotic laxatives, stool softeners, lubricants, and stimulants. Bulk-forming laxatives work by increasing the bulk or weight of the stool, which stimulates the bowel. Osmotic laxatives draw water from the body into the bowel to soften the stool and make it easier to pass. Stool softeners, also known as emollient laxatives, increase the water and fat that the stool absorbs, making it softer. Lubricant laxatives coat the colon with a slick layer of mineral oil, preventing the colon from absorbing water from the stool and making it slippery and easier to pass. Stimulant laxatives activate the nerves that control the muscles in the colon, forcing it into motion and moving the stool along.

Laxatives are available without a prescription, but it is important to take them as directed to prevent side effects. They can be found in pharmacies and supermarkets, or bought online. However, they should only be taken occasionally and for up to a week at a time. If your constipation has not improved after taking laxatives for a week, or if you are experiencing side effects, it is important to speak to a healthcare professional.

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Laxatives are a type of medicine that can treat constipation. However, they are not recommended as a first-line treatment for constipation. This is because they can cause several side effects and may lead to negative health outcomes if not used cautiously.

Gastroenterologists recommend making dietary and lifestyle changes as the first course of action to relieve constipation. Increasing fibre intake, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly are often sufficient to alleviate constipation without resorting to laxatives. Fibre-rich foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help add bulk to stools, making them softer and easier to pass.

Laxatives should only be considered if constipation persists despite these initial interventions. Even then, it is important to consult a healthcare professional before taking laxatives, as they may not be suitable for everyone. Certain individuals, such as children and people with specific health conditions, may be advised against using laxatives due to potential risks.

Additionally, laxatives can cause side effects such as dehydration, diarrhoea, intestinal obstruction, and imbalances in salts and minerals in the body. Prolonged or excessive use of laxatives can also lead to dependency, making it difficult to have spontaneous bowel movements without them. Therefore, it is crucial to use laxatives sparingly and only under the guidance of a medical professional.

In summary, laxatives are not recommended as a first-line treatment for constipation due to their potential side effects and health risks. Lifestyle and dietary modifications are generally the preferred initial approach to managing constipation, with laxatives reserved for more persistent or severe cases under medical supervision.

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Laxative abuse can lead to dehydration, worsen constipation, and cause other health issues

Laxatives are a convenient solution for addressing occasional constipation or related discomfort. However, laxative abuse can lead to severe dehydration, worsen constipation, and cause other health issues.

Laxatives are designed to treat constipation by softening stools or stimulating the intestine to push out stool. While they can be effective for occasional use, they are not recommended as a first-line treatment. It is advised to increase fibre and fluid intake and exercise levels before resorting to laxatives. This is because laxative abuse can lead to a range of health issues, including:

  • Dehydration: Laxatives remove water from the body, and excessive use can lead to dehydration, which can be fatal if not treated promptly. Symptoms of dehydration include muscle weakness, dizziness, thirst, inability to urinate, dark urine, confusion, and dry mouth.
  • Electrolyte imbalances: Electrolytes such as potassium, sodium, and magnesium are lost at high rates through diarrhoea caused by laxative abuse. This can disrupt normal bodily functions, including the heartbeat, blood pressure, muscle movements, and digestion. In some cases, electrolyte loss can lead to coma, seizures, and sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Chronic constipation: Ironically, laxative abuse can worsen constipation over time. This is because laxatives "overwork" the digestive tract, reducing muscle tone and nerve signalling, which interferes with normal bowel movements. This can lead to a vicious cycle where higher and higher doses of laxatives are required to have a bowel movement.
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs): Chronic dehydration from laxative abuse can increase the risk of UTIs by concentrating chemicals in the urine, which can irritate and injure the urethra.
  • Organ damage: The repeated and forceful expulsion of stool can cause physical trauma to the colon lining, increasing the risk of bacterial infections. Long-term laxative abuse can also lead to liver and kidney damage and an increased risk of colon cancer.
  • Mental health issues: Laxative abuse is often associated with eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and can lead to depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

Given these potential health risks, it is important to use laxatives only occasionally and as directed by a healthcare professional. If you suspect that you or someone you know may be abusing laxatives, seek medical advice.

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There are four main types of laxatives: bulk-forming, osmotic, stimulant, and poo-softener

It is not advisable to take laxatives three times a week. Laxatives are not meant to be a long-term solution and are not suitable for everyone. They are meant to be taken occasionally and for up to a week at a time. If your constipation has not improved after taking laxatives for a week, speak to a doctor.

Laxatives are a type of medicine that can treat constipation. They are often used if lifestyle changes, such as increasing fibre intake, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking regular exercise, have not helped.

Bulk-Forming Laxatives

Bulk-forming laxatives work by increasing the "bulk" or weight of faeces, which in turn stimulates the bowel. They are considered the gentlest type of laxative and are the least likely to cause side effects. They are often the best laxative to try first, unless a doctor recommends a different type. They include Fybogel (ispaghula husk), psyllium (Metamucil), polycarbophil (FiberCon), and methylcellulose (Citrucel). They take 2-3 days to work.

Osmotic Laxatives

Osmotic laxatives draw water from the body into the bowel to soften faeces and make it easier to pass. They stimulate the muscles that line the gut, helping them to move faeces along. They take 2-3 days to work, and 6-12 hours to work for some types. Osmotic laxatives include lactulose (Duphalac, Lactugal), macrogol (Movicol, Laxido, CosmoCol, Molaxole, Molative), polyethylene glycol (Gavilax, MiraLAX), magnesium hydroxide solution (Dulcolax, Ex-Lax, Phillips' Milk of Magnesia), and glycerin (Colace Glycerin, Fleet Pedia-Lax).

Poo-Softener Laxatives

Poo-softener laxatives work by letting water into faeces to soften it and make it easier to pass. They include docusate (Colace).

Stimulant Laxatives

Stimulant laxatives activate the nerves that control the muscles in the colon. They force the colon into motion so it moves faeces along. They include bisacodyl (Dulcolax) and senna (Fletcher's Laxative, Senokot).

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Laxatives are available over the counter and on prescription

Laxatives can be purchased from pharmacies and supermarkets. Osmotic and stimulant laxatives are the most common over-the-counter laxatives. Osmotic laxatives, like MiraLAX, soften stools by retaining water in the colon. Stimulant laxatives cause the intestine walls to contract, resulting in a bowel movement.

Over-the-counter laxatives are intended for very short-term use only. Prolonged use can worsen constipation and lead to serious health issues, such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and increased risk of UTIs. They can even become addictive. Therefore, it is recommended to consult a healthcare provider if an over-the-counter laxative does not provide relief.

Prescription laxatives are generally safer for long-term use and are prescribed when constipation is an ongoing problem. They are available in four classes, each working differently: osmotic, prokinetic, secretagogue, and opioid antagonist. Osmotic laxatives, for example, draw water into the bowel to soften stools, and they are available in both over-the-counter and prescription forms.

It is important to note that laxatives are not suitable for everyone. They are not typically recommended for children or individuals with specific health conditions, such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Before taking any laxative, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional or pharmacist to ensure it is safe for you.

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Frequently asked questions

Laxatives are not meant to be taken daily and are recommended only when lifestyle changes like increasing fibre intake, drinking more water, and exercising have not helped. It is best to consult a doctor before taking laxatives.

Taking laxatives too often or for too long can lead to diarrhoea, dehydration, intestinal obstruction, and an imbalance of salts and minerals in the body. It can also worsen constipation.

Some alternatives to laxatives include drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly, and including more fibre in your diet.

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