Most medical professionals describe constipation as having less than three bowel movements in a week. Everyone experiences constipation every now and then, but, for some, it happens frequently and causes extreme discomfort. For people who experience this type of constipation, laxatives are often the only way to find relief. Several types of laxatives available over-the-counter can effectively relieve constipation.

Constipation and Types of Laxatives

Over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives can treat constipation as well as prevent it from occurring in the first place. There are five types of laxatives, and they each work differently. Laxatives should be treated like any other OTC medication. Read the label carefully and follow the directions when taking them. Each type has its own guidelines, and it is important to be informed about any medication you are putting into your body.

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Oral Osmotics

Oral osmotic laxatives work by drawing water into the colon to help stool pass more easily. This type of laxative comes in powder form and is meant to be mixed with about eight ounces of water or juice. Some people find the taste of osmotic laxatives rather unpleasant, but following it with another glass of water or juice can help. Oral osmotics are one of the milder types of laxatives and can take as long as three days to produce a bowel movement. Still, side effects can include cramping, gas, loose stools, and bloating.

Osmotic Laxative Water NickS / Getty Images


Oral Bulk Formers

Oral bulk-forming laxatives work just as their name implies. The active ingredient is usually psyllium or polycarbophil, an absorbent compound that soaks up liquid from the intestines, forming a large, soft, bulky stool. Ideally, this stimulates the gut to naturally contract, and the person has a bowel movement. Results can take anywhere from 12 hours to three days. Bloating, cramping, gas, and additional constipation can occur if a person does not take this type with enough water.

psyllium bulk colon Luis Echeverri Urrea / Getty Images


Oral Stool Softeners

Stool softeners work a little differently. Rather than trying to stimulate the gut to have a bowel movement, they soften the stools, making them naturally easier to pass. This type of laxative comes as capsules, liquids, tablets, and syrup. Read the directions carefully before using them. Stool softeners are typically taken before bed and take anywhere from one to three days of regular use to be effective.

Stool softener capsules BWFolsom / Getty Images


Oral Stimulants

While you should be careful about taking any laxative, stimulant laxatives require special care and attention. Various chemicals or herbal ingredients in the product stimulate the intestine, causing it to spasm and eliminate stool. Although they can produce results in as little as a few hours, side effects like diarrhea and gas pains can be more severe than with other forms of OTC laxatives. Also, the intestines can become dependent on stimulant laxatives pretty quickly, so it is important not to abuse them.

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Rectal Suppositories

The last type of laxative is rectal suppositories. There are multiple types, including carbon dioxide-releasing, stimulants, hyperosmotics, and lubricants. Carbon dioxide-releasing laxatives work by releasing gas into the intestine, stimulating intestinal contractions. Stimulant suppositories also work directly on the intestinal wall. Hyperosmotics draw water into the bowel, while lubricants coat the stool with a film that holds in water and makes it easier to pass. How long they take to work depends on the type.

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When To Use an Over the Counter Laxative

Because long-term laxative use can cause additional problems, it is always better to try a natural cure first. If you are still finding it difficult to have a bowel movement and your discomfort is increasing, using laxatives is the next step. Try a bulk-forming or stool softener type first, as these are milder options and do not actively stimulate the intestinal walls. If you are still having difficulty or if your stool is very hard, try using an osmotic laxative to draw more water into the gut and soften the stool. If that does not work, try a stimulant laxative.

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Natural Ways to Relieve Constipation

As mentioned, natural cures should be tried first before reaching for a laxative. Try drinking more water, eating more soluble fiber, exercising more, or taking probiotic supplements. These interventions may take a few days or weeks to work but, if done regularly, can help relieve constipation and prevent it from happening again.

Fiber Exercise Natural artursfoto / Getty Images


How Long Can You Take Laxatives?

Read the instructions on the laxative you choose or talk to your doctor for a definitive answer. Generally, a good rule of thumb is that laxatives should only be taken occasionally and for no more than seven days at a time. Taking too many or taking them for too long can cause serious problems. If your constipation has not improved after a week, see your doctor.

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Complications and Side Effects

Taking too many laxatives can cause diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and electrolyte depletion. The body will also be unable to absorb the nutrients it needs. Overuse of laxatives that stimulate the intestinal walls can lead to bowel dysfunction. When this occurs, the colon loses its ability to contract naturally, which causes more constipation and possibly fecal impaction. People who are dependent on laxatives should consult their physician and begin weaning off of them slowly to restore normal gut function.

Physician Wean Laxative Overuse mustafagull / Getty Images


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