Constipation is when your stools (poo) become hard, dry and difficult to pass. You may feel you’re having to strain or sit on the toilet for much longer than usual. Not everyone has a bowel motion every day and there’s no clear ‘normal’ when it comes to how often you go. Bowel habits vary from more than once daily to 3 times a week, but people complain of constipation when they can’t go as easily or as often as they would like – which is generally fewer than 3 times a week.
Constipation is a common condition
Constipation in adults is a common complaint that affects a lot of people. Anyone can be affected by constipation, but it’s more likely to occur as you become older or if you are pregnant. Even children experience constipation, particularly around the time of toilet training.
Up to 1 in 5 adults
at some point.
While it’s not usually a serious condition, being constipated can leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. It may be resolved simply by adjusting your diet to include more fibre and fluids and ensuring you have good bowel habits. However sometimes using a laxative such as a stool softener or bowel stimulant for a short time may be helpful.
- 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
Why am I constipated?
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, remaining nutrients and water are absorbed before the stools are passed out of your body.
If you have constipation, it’s usually because your stools are moving too slowly through your colon. Too much water is absorbed from the colon and your stools end up hard, dry and therefore difficult to pass.
Normally, your poo is about three quarters water, with the rest being mostly undigested solids including fats, protein and food residues.
What causes constipation?
Constipation in adults may be caused by lifestyle factors, medical reasons 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)
How to prevent constipation
- Eat a well-balanced diet high in fibre, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereals
- Drink plenty of water – for adults, aim to drink at least 2L of fluids a day
- Try to stay active – regular exercise may help relieve symptoms of constipation
- Practice good toilet habits – maintaining a regular toilet time, for example, by going in the morning or soon after a meal when the bowel is most active can help you stay regular and never ignore the urge to use the toilet
If you have constipation, using a laxative such as a stool softener or bowel stimulant for a short time may be helpful. Laxatives work in different ways. The four main groups are:
- Stool Softener laxatives
that let water into the stool (poo), softening it and 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
- Stimulant laxatives
that stimulate your gut muscles and help push the stools out
- Osmotic laxatives
to draw water into the intestines, softening the stool (poo) making it easier to pass
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.
The Coloxyl treatment range
The Coloxyl treatment range has been providing effective relief from constipation amongst Australians 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.
How long does constipation last?
The experience and duration of constipation differs from person to person. How long your constipation lasts generally depends on how long it takes to recognise the
symptoms, and then on if and how you treat it.
Constipation is when you have hard, dry stools that are difficult to pass, or when you have less frequent bowel movements than is usual for you. Some people may go for a long time before they recognise the symptoms of constipation.
Constipation is usually more frustrating than it is serious. And it’s very common, with up to one in five adults reporting that they have constipation. Although there’s a range of ways to manage it, not all lifestyle changes and treatments for constipation work straight away. You may need to persist with the change or treatment for a short time.
If you have ongoing constipation despite lifestyle changes or other treatment, have a chat with your GP.
When is constipation an emergency?
Most often, constipation is more frustrating and uncomfortable than serious. But occasionally constipation may be a sign of another problem.
Call or visit your doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms:
• Severe tummy cramps or pain
• Sudden or unexplained changes in bowel patterns
• Severe diarrhoea
• Blood in the stools or bleeding from your bottom
• Constipation that lasts longer than seven days despite laxative treatment
• Weakness or unusual tiredness
What is considered a ‘normal’ bowel function for an adult?
Normal bowel functions vary widely between different people. Not everyone has a bowel motion every day; ‘normal’ can range from several times a day to three times per week. It is the change from this normal pattern that is important.
Is constipation always associated with low fibre intake?
The general consensus amongst medical professionals is that increasing fibre and fluids intake can prevent constipation. There are however many other causes such as medications, pregnancy, reduced physical activity, changes in a person’s routine or ignoring the urge to go to the toilet which can all have an impact on the functioning of the bowel.
When should I see my doctor?
Sometimes constipation is a symptom of a more serious condition. Check with your doctor if you have recurrent or severe cases of constipation or if bowel motions are blood-stained or black and tar-like, bowel habits change frequently from constipation to diarrhoea, if motions become painful to pass, or you are unwell experiencing fever, headache, vomiting and recent weight-loss.