Laxatives are a type of medicine that can help you empty your bowels if you are having trouble going to the toilet.
They are widely used to treat constipation and are available over the counter (without a prescription or 'OTC') from pharmacies and supermarkets.
Things to consider
Just because laxatives are available over the counter does not mean they are safe and suitable for everyone.
Laxatives are not usually recommended for children unless advised by a doctor and some types of laxatives may not be safe to use if you have a bowel condition such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
You should always read carefully the patient information leaflet that comes with medication to make sure it is safe for you to take.
Read more about the considerations regarding laxatives.
Types of laxatives
The four most widely used laxatives in England are:
- osmotic laxatives which make your stools (‘poo’) softer by increasing the amount of water in your bowels
- stimulant laxatives which speed up the movement of your bowel by stimulating the muscles that line your digestive tract
- bulk-forming laxatives, also known as fibre supplements, work in the same way as dietary fibre; they increase the bulk of your stools by helping your stools retain fluid
- stool softener laxatives add water to your stools to lubricate them, making them more slippery and easier to pass
Less commonly used types of laxatives include:
- bowel cleansing solutions – these are often given to people who are going to have bowel surgery or a bowel examination to make sure that the bowel is empty and are not seen as a routine treatment for constipation
- peripheral opioid-receptor antagonists– these are used to treat constipation in people who are terminally ill where the constipation is the result of taking powerful painkiller medications such as morphine
- prucalopride – used to treat persistent constipation in women who have failed to respond to treatment (it is unclear whether prucalopride is safe or effective in men so its use in men is currently not recommended)
Laxatives are available as:
- tablets or capsules you swallow
- sachets of powder you mix with water and then drink
- suppositories – a capsule you place inside your rectum (back passage) where it will dissolve
Ideally, laxatives should only be used for short periods of time as prolonged use can make your body dependent on them, so your bowel no longer functions normally without them.
Recommendations can vary depending on the type of laxative but generally it is recommended that you do not take laxatives for more than 5-7 days in a row. If symptoms persist after this time contact your GP for advice.
You should take a laxative with plenty of water as this can help prevent unpleasant side effects.
Read more information about the dosage of laxatives.
Common side effects of laxatives include:
- flatulence (breaking wind or ‘farting’)
- abdominal pain
These side effects are usually mild and should pass once you stop taking the laxatives.
The long-term use of laxatives can cause more troublesome side effects such as:
- unbalanced levels of salts and minerals in your body
Read more about the side effects of laxatives.
In many cases you can improve the symptoms of constipation without having to use laxatives through lifestyle changes, such as:
- increase your daily intake of fibre - you should eat at least 18-30g of fibre a day; high-fibre foods include fruit, vegetables and cereals
- add bulking agents, such as wheat bran, to your diet - these will help make your stools softer and easier to pass.
- drink plenty of water
- get more exercise by going for a daily walk or run
Read more about preventing constipation for more ways to change your diet and lifestyle.