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NHS Choices Condition

Content supplied by NHS Choices

This section covers the following:

Lifestyle advice

Your GP will first advise about ways you can change your diet and lifestyle, which may mean that your constipation passes without the use of medication.

Some ways you can help treat your constipation are as follows:

  • Increase your daily intake of fibre. You should be eating at least 18-30g of fibre a day. High-fibre foods include fruit, vegetables and cereals.
  • Add some bulking agents, such as wheat bran, to your diet. These will help make your stools softer and easier to pass.
  • Increase your fluid intake. Drink at least 1.2 litres (six to eight glasses) of fluid a day (see Health A-Z: how much should we drink?)
  • Get more exercise by going for a daily walk or run.
  • If your constipation is causing pain or discomfort, you may want to take a painkiller such as paracetamol. Make sure you always follow the dosage instructions carefully. Children under 16 years of age should not take aspirin.
  • Identify a routine of a place and time of day when you are comfortably able to spend time in the toilet. Respond to your bowel's natural pattern - when you feel the urge, do not delay.

See the Prevention section for more information about ways to change your diet and lifestyle.

If these diet and lifestyle changes do not help, your GP may prescribe you an oral laxative.

Laxatives

Laxatives are a type of medicine that help you to pass stools. There are several different types and each one has a different effect on your digestive system.

Bulk-forming laxatives

Your GP will normally start you on a bulk-forming laxative. These laxatives work by helping your stools to retain fluid. This means they are less likely to dry out, which can lead to faecal impaction (see Complications section). Bulk-forming laxatives also make your stools denser and softer, which means they should be easier to pass.

Commonly prescribed bulk-forming laxatives include ispaghula husk, methylcellulose and sterculia. When taking this type of laxative, you must make sure that you drink plenty of fluids. Also, you should not take them before going to bed. It will usually be two to three days before you feel the effects of a bulk-forming laxative.

Osmotic laxatives

If your stools remain hard after you have taken a bulk-forming laxative, your GP may prescribe an osmotic laxative instead. Osmotic laxatives increase the amount of fluid in your bowels. This helps to stimulate your body to pass stools and also softens stools.

Commonly prescribed osmotic laxatives include lactulose and macrogols. As with bulk-forming laxatives, make sure you are drinking enough fluids. It will usually be two to three days before you feel the effect of the laxative.

Stimulant laxatives

If your stools are soft, but you are still having difficulty passing them, your GP may prescribe you a stimulant laxative. This laxative stimulates the muscles that line your digestive tract, helping them to move stools and waste products along your large intestine to your anus.

The most commonly prescribed stimulant laxatives are senna, bisacodyl and sodium picosulphate. These laxatives are usually only used on a short-term basis, and they will usually start to work within six to 12 hours.

According to your individual preference and the speed with which you require relief, your GP may decide to combine different laxatives.

Treating faecal impaction

Faecal impaction occurs when stools become hard and dry and collect in your rectum. This obstructs the rectum, making it more difficult for stools to pass along.

If you have faecal impaction, you will initially be treated with a high dose of the osmotic laxative macrogol. After a few days of using this laxative, you may also have to start taking a stimulant laxative.

If you do not respond to these laxatives, you may need one of the medications described below.

  • Suppository - this type of medicine is inserted into your anus. The suppository gradually dissolves at body temperature and is then absorbed into your bloodstream. Bisacodyl and glycerol are two medicines that can be given in suppository form.
  • Mini enema - this is when a medicine in fluid form is injected through your anus and into your large bowel. Docusate and sodium citrate can be given in this way.

Pregnancy or breastfeeding

If you are pregnant, there are ways for you to safely treat constipation without harming you or your baby. As with most constipated adults, your GP will first advise you to change your diet by increasing fibre and fluid intake. You will also be advised to take gentle exercise.

If dietary and lifestyle changes fail to work, you may be prescribed a laxative to help you pass stools more regularly.

There are lots of laxatives that are safe for pregnant women to use because most are not absorbed by the digestive system. This means that your baby will not feel the effects of the laxative.

Laxatives that are safe to use during pregnancy include the bulk-forming laxatives lactulose and macrogols. If these do not work, your GP may advise a small dose of bisacodyl or senna (stimulant laxatives).

However, senna may not be suitable if you are in your third trimester of pregnancy (27 weeks to birth), because this medicine is partially absorbed by your digestive system.

Babies who have not yet been weaned 

If your baby is constipated but has not yet started to eat solid foods, the first way to treat them is to give them extra water between their normal feeds. If you are using formula milk, make sure you still make the formula as directed by the manufacturer - do not dilute the mixture.

You might want to try gently moving your baby's legs in a bicycling motion, or carefully massaging their abdomen (tummy) to help stimulate their bowels.

Babies who are eating solids 

If your baby is eating solid foods, give them plenty of water or diluted fruit juice. Try to encourage them to eat fruit, which can be pureed or chopped, depending on their ability to chew. The best fruits for babies to eat to treat constipation are:

  • apples,
  • apricots,
  • grapes,
  • peaches,
  • pears,
  • plums,
  • prunes,
  • raspberries, and
  • strawberries.

Never force your baby to eat food if they do not want to. If you do, it can turn mealtimes into a battle, and your child may start to think of eating as being a negative and stressful experience.

If your baby is still constipated after a change in diet, they may have to be prescribed a laxative. Bulk-forming laxatives are not suitable for babies, so they will usually be given an osmotic laxative. However, if this fails to work, they can be prescribed a stimulant laxative.

Children

As with babies and adults, children with constipation will first be advised to change their diet. If this fails to work, laxatives can be prescribed - usually an osmotic laxative, followed if necessary by a stimulant laxative.

As well as eating fruit, older children should have a well-balanced diet, which also contains vegetables and wholegrain foods such as wholemeal bread and pasta.

Try to minimise stress or conflict associated with using the toilet or meal times. It is important to be positive and encouraging when it comes to establishing a toilet routine. Your child should be allowed at least 10 minutes on the toilet, to make sure they have passed as many stools as possible.

To encourage a positive toilet routine, try making a diary of your child's bowel movements linked to a reward system. This can help them to focus on using the toilet successfully.

view information about Constipation on www.nhs.co.uk »

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The information provided on this website (including any NHS Choices medical information) is for use as information or for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical care by a qualified doctor or other qualified healthcare professional. We do not warrant that any information included within this site will meet your health or medical requirements. This Embarrassing Bodies site does not provide any medical or diagnostic services so you should always check with a health professional if you have any concerns about your health.


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