Constipation in adults is a common complaint that affects a lot of people. Anyone can be affected by constipation, but it’s more likely if you are pregnant or elderly. Even children experience constipation, particularly around the time of toilet training.
While it’s not usually a serious condition, being constipated can leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. The good news is that chronic, ongoing constipation in adults can often be resolved by simply improving your diet, being more active and making sure you have good bowel habits. Using stool softeners and stimulant laxatives for a short time are helpful to overcome acute constipation.
What is constipation?
Constipation is when your stools (poo) become hard and difficult to pass or your bowel motions are less frequent than normal. This can lead to a need to push or strain, and a feeling that your bowel has not fully emptied.
Not everyone has a bowel motion every day – ‘normal’ bowel habits can range from several times a day to 3 times a week. This makes it difficult to define constipation, so it is important to remember it is a change from your normal pattern that may mean you are constipated.
Digestion and constipation
When you eat, food passes from your stomach into the small intestine where most of the nutrients are absorbed. It then travels down into your large intestine (colon). Here, mostly just water is absorbed before the stools are passed out of your body.
If food moves too slowly through your gut or is retained too long, more water is absorbed and your poo becomes hard and difficult to pass (constipation). If food moves too quickly through your gut not enough water is absorbed, making your poo soft or watery (diarrhoea).
Normally, your poo is about three quarters water, with the rest being mostly undigested solids, fibre and fats.
What are the symptoms of constipation in adults?
Common symptoms of constipation include:
- Opening your bowels less often than usual.
- Hard, dry stools that may be painful to pass
- Straining when passing a bowel motion
- Feeling that your bowel hasn’t emptied fully after passing a stool
- Bloated abdomen
- Abdominal (tummy) cramps
What causes constipation?
Constipation in adults may be caused by lifestyle factors or as a side effect of certain medications.
Common lifestyle causes of constipation include:
- Low fluid intake
- Low fibre intake
- Lack of regular exercise
- Ignoring the urge to go
- A change in routine or diet
- A period of illness (particularly when bed rest is required)
Constipation can also be a side-effect of some medications including:
- Iron supplements
- Opioid pain killers
- Some antidepressants and other medicines
Occasionally, constipation may be a symptom of another problem. It is important to speak to your healthcare professional if constipation persists.
Constipation treatments: stool softeners and laxatives
If you have constipation, the short-term use of a stool softener and/or laxative may be required in order to restore your normal bowel habit. There are different types of stool softeners and laxatives that work in different ways.
The four main groups are:
Stool softener laxatives
that work by wetting and softening a hard stool, making it easier to pass
Bulk-forming laxatives (fibre supplements)
that add bulk and absorb water to produce soft, bulky stools that are easier to pass
that stimulate your gut muscles and help push the stools out
to draw water into the intestines
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist first before taking any constipation treatment, including stool softeners, they will be able to advise you on the best laxative to manage your constipation.
How can you prevent constipation?
A number of lifestyle changes can be made to help prevent constipation:
- Eat a well-balanced diet high in fibre, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereals to add bulk to your stool and help you stay regular
- Drink plenty of water – for adults, aim to drink at least 2L of fluids a day
- Try to be as active as possible
- Try to maintain a regular toilet time; going in the morning or soon after a meal when the bowel is most active can help
- Don’t ignore the urge to use the toilet
The Coloxyl treatment range: stool softeners and laxatives
The Coloxyl treatment range has been providing effective relief from constipation in adults in Australia for over 40 years. As the experience of constipation may differ from person to person, the range is tailored to suit different needs with a step-wise approach to constipation treatment.