What Are the Different Types of Laxatives?

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  • Written By: M. West
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2019
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Several different varieties of laxatives are available for purchase, but bulk formers, also known as fiber laxatives, are considered the safest to use on a prolonged basis. Other options include lubricants, stool softeners, and saline laxatives. Stimulants are the least gentle and shouldn't be used for a long period. The habitual use of some laxatives can produce dependence and cause bowel function to worsen. Patients should consult their doctors to find out which kind is best for their particular needs.

Bulk-forming laxatives work by causing more water to enter into the stool. This action fosters the formation of larger stools, which, in turn, prompts bowel contractions which propel them out. The main ingredients found in these types of products include psyllium, polycarbophyl, and methylcellulose. It's important to take these products with plenty of water to avoid bloating, gas, or cramping. Patients should begin with a smaller amount, then increase the quantity slowly to minimize the incidence of side effects.

Stool softeners work by adding more moisture into the stools, which causes them to become softer and enables them to exit the body easier. They are available as both an oral pill or capsule, and as a suppository. An example of this variety of laxative product is docusate. Side effects may include throat irritation and stomach or intestinal cramping.


Saline laxatives, also called hyperosmotics, act by causing more water to come into the colon from adjacent body tissues. This allows the stools to become softer and promotes easier passage through the intestine. Ingredients found in these products may include polyethylene glycol or magnesium. Side effects may include bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. Nausea, gas, and increased thirst may also be experienced.

Another laxative choice is lubricants. Their mechanism of action is to provide a coating around the stools, thus enabling them to hold water and be transported more easily out of the body. Glycerin suppositories work by providing a coating to the inside of the anus, the opening to the rectum, which facilitates the exit of hard stools.

The harshest variety of laxatives are stimulants. They act by producing bowel contractions that transport the stool out. Doctors don't advise using these longer than a few days, because they cause the intestinal muscles involved in contractions to lose their tone. An example of this type of product is bisacodyl. Side effects include diarrhea, nausea, and cramping.

Before resorting to laxatives to get relief from constipation, certain lifestyle practices should be employed. Incorporating high fiber foods into the diet, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, is helpful. Drinking lots of fluids every day can be beneficial. Regular exercise can also help to facilitate better bowel movements.



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