What are laxatives?

Laxatives are substances that increase bowel movements. They are used to treat constipation if more conservative methods such as increasing the amount of fibre in the diet, drinking more fluid, or doing exercise haven’t helped.

The main types of laxatives used in the UK are as follows:

  • Bulk-forming laxatives – these act like fibre by increasing the bulk of the patient’s faeces and helping them to retain water, making it easier for the bowels to push them out.
  • Stool-softening laxatives – these increase the amount of fluid in the bowels, softening the stool.
  • Stimulant laxatives – these stimulate the nerves in the lining of the large intestine, speeding up the patient’s bowel movements.

What are laxatives used for?

Laxatives are mostly used to treat constipation when other treatment options have failed. In addition, some laxatives are used to empty the colon in preparation for some intestinal and rectal examinations.

Taking laxatives

Laxatives can come in the form of capsules or tablets, sachets of powder, liquids or gels that are applied directly to the anus or suppositories. Some are designed to be taken at specific times of day, such as first thing in the morning or before going to sleep.

It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions or the patient information leaflet in over-the-counter laxatives as to the frequency and dosage that should be taken, without taking higher or lower doses than those indicated.

It is important to stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluid while taking laxatives, as they have a dehydrating effect on the body. Ideally, they should only be taken occasionally and not every day for long periods.

Preparation for Laxatives

If the patient suffers from a gastrointestinal condition, diabetes, or food intolerance, is currently taking other medication, or is pregnant/breastfeeding, they should consult their doctor or pharmacist before taking laxatives.

Always check with a doctor before giving children laxatives.

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