How to deal with symptoms of constipation in adults
Over the course of your life, you might experience constipation from time to time. It's perfectly normal. In fact, it's one of the most common gastrointestinal problems and happens to most people at some point1.
When constipation strikes, it's natural to have questions about it, including how long it lasts, what causes it and what you can do to find relief and keep yourself regular. You'll find all the answers here.
What are the common symptoms of constipation in adults?
The first step to deal with your body’s signals is to spot them and understand what they mean. But symptoms of constipation can differ from person to person. Here are the most common symptoms of constipation in adults:
Fewer trips to the bathroom
Being 'regular' is different for everyone. Some of us go every day. Others a few times a week. However, fewer than three poos a week is a sign your body is struggling to pass unwanted food.
When your poo is dry or hard, or when you have to strain, you can feel bunged up or like you haven't fully emptied your bowels.
Bloating is a very common symptom of constipation in adults.
Abdominal discomfort and pain
Being constipated is uncomfortable. It can cause tummy ache and discomfort.
Feeling bunged up
When you aren't emptying your bowels completely, this can make you feel blocked up. This is one of the most common symptoms of constipation in adults.
Please be aware that the symptoms of constipation may resemble other medical conditions or may be caused by other health problems. If your constipation persists, you should speak to your doctor to exclude other conditions.
What causes constipation?
Hard and dry stools are the result of too much water being absorbed by the body from the large intestine. When the colon's muscle contractions are slow or sluggish, the stool moves through the colon too slowly, resulting in too much water being absorbed2. Some of the most common causes of constipation include:
Some problems, like stroke, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, an underactive thyroid, depression, lack of potassium, magnesium or too much calcium or a blockage in the intestines can cause constipation4.
That's because these conditions can affect the muscles or nerves used for normal bowel movements. A doctor can test to see if the problem is medical. Remember, medical problems can often be treated.
Some medicines can cause symptoms of constipation in adults. These include some drugs used to treat depression, antacids containing aluminium or calcium, iron supplements, some allergy medicines (antihistamines), certain painkillers (opioids), some drugs for high blood pressure, including diuretics, and some drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease5.
Holding in your poo
Lots of people prefer to poo at home. But this can cause constipation if it means holding it in for too long.
How to manage occasional constipation
Don’t worry, there’s no need to change your whole routine. Start by making small changes to see how your body reacts and go from there. Here are a few simple tips to help yourself feel lighter and brighter:
1. Change your diet
Help your body process food by being more aware of what you eat. Start by trying to eat more fibre. A fibre-rich diet accelerates the transport of poo through the large intestine. It also softens poo and increases its weight, which helps keep you regular. Speak to your doctor for advice on how to best adapt your diet.
2. Start exercising
Physical inactivity, especially in the elderly, can slow down the large intestine by increasing the time poo needs to move through the colon. Research has found that, while moderate increased activity doesn't change bowel functions in healthy people, modest physical activity may help with mild constipation7.
3. Don’t hold it in!
When you feel the urge to go to the loo, go to the loo. It can also help if you can take your time and don’t feel rushed or stressed. Don't suppress the urge to poo.
4. Get into the habit
Many people find that going to the toilet at a specific time each day can help their body create a new routine. The way you sit on the toilet can affect the function of your bowels, so lean well forward, with a straight back and with your feet supported8.
5. Talk to your doctor about any medicines you're taking
Some medicines can make you constipated. These include some drugs used to treat depression, antacids containing aluminium or calcium, iron supplements, some allergy medicines (antihistamines), certain painkillers, some drugs for high blood pressure, including diuretics, and some drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
If you suffer from constipation from time and use these kind of medicines, talk to your doctor.
6. Try a laxative for occasional constipation
Often, symptoms of constipation in adults can be treated through dietary and lifestyle changes, which can also help prevent the condition. However, this alone may not be enough.
When diet and lifestyle changes haven't helped, you may need to try a laxative. Your doctor may recommend using a laxative for a short time9, 10.
Frequently Asked Questions
When we start talking about constipation, the same questions often pop up. Here they are, along with the answers.
Yes, women experience constipation more often than men. This can be explained by the presence of oestrogen and progesterone, hormones that directly interfere with movement in the intestines. Especially during their menstrual cycles, women can get constipated7.
Another reason that constipation affects women more is the pelvic floor. This plays an important role in emptying the intestines.
Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders in adults. Factors that may increase your risk of constipation include:
- Being an older adult
- Being a woman
- Being dehydrated
- Eating a diet that's low in fibre
- Getting little or no physical activity. This includes people who are confined to bed due to a physical disability such as a spinal cord injury
- Taking certain medications, including sedatives, opioid pain medications, some antidepressants or medications to lower blood pressure
- Having a mental health condition such as depression or an eating disorder
- Being pregnant
Complications can include11:
- Swollen veins in your anus (haemorrhoids). Straining to poo may cause swelling in the veins in and around your anus.
- Torn skin in your anus (anal fissure). A large or hard poo can cause tiny tears in the anus.
- Poo that can't be expelled (faecal impaction). Constipation may cause an accumulation of hardened poo that gets stuck in your intestines.
- Intestine that protrudes from the anus (rectal prolapse). Straining to have a poo can cause a small amount of the rectum to stretch and protrude from the anus.
Treatment guidelines, along with results of clinical studies, have shown these treatments are useful for occasional constipation:
- Lifestyle modification, including increasing fibre in your diet helps speed up the digestion of food in your bowels.
- Laxatives, including osmotic laxatives such as macrogol or stimulant laxatives such as senna and bisacodyl.
- Probiotics. Those of the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus genera have been shown to increase the frequency of pooing in adults and children.
There are several types of laxatives – each works differently to help you poo.
Stimulant laxatives including bisacodyl, the active substance in Dulcolax®, have a dual action. They transport water and salt into the gut which hydrates the poo and makes it easier to pass. In addition, they stimulate natural bowel movement, helping your intestines to contract. Together, these two effects accelerate the transit of poo through the colon and have been proven to be very effective and safe in clinical studies. Effectively, stimulating your bowel muscles helps get things moving.
Osmotic or saline laxatives help poo move through the large intestine by reducing intestinal fluid absorption. These laxatives contain poorly absorbed substances that hold additional water inside the colon, creating an osmotic gradient, drawing water into the bowel. This hydrates the poo and makes it easier to pass. Saline laxatives can also help keep you regular.
Stool softener laxatives
Stool softeners are just that — products that help make hard, dry, painful poo softer. They work by softening the poo in the intestine, which makes it easier and more comfortable to pass. When used as directed, stool softeners are a safe, gentle way to keep things moving.
Medicated suppositories are a typically reliable, fast-acting dosage form of stimulant laxative that are inserted into the rectum. These suppositories, which may contain bisacodyl or glycerin, help move the poo out of the body by providing lubrication and stimulation. They stimulate the bowel muscles in the intestine to help encourage a bowel movement within minutes.
Fibre supplements add bulk to your poo. Bulky poos are softer and easier to pass. Fibre supplements are traditionally considered as the first-line treatment. They are generally safe, but may increase bloating, flatulence and abdominal pain, and may interfere with the absorption of some drugs.
The Dulco® range
Feeling bloated, constipated, heavy or just uncomfortable can interfere with your day-to-day life. It's frustrating too, especially if you've tried to adapt your diet or lifestyle to move things along. But fear not, for occasional constipation, you can turn to some active ingredients-based laxatives, this includes Bisacodyl, found in Dulcolax® tablets, Sodium picosulfate, found in the Dulcolax© Pico liquid, or docusate sodium, found in DulcoEase©.
1. Udani JK, Bloom DW. Effects of Kivia powder on gut health in patients with occasional constipation: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Nutr J. 2013 Jun 8;12:78.
2. Schiller LR. Review article: the therapy of constipation. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2001 Jun;15(6):749-63.
3. Basilisco G, Coletta M. Chronic constipation: a critical review. Dig Liver Dis. 2013 Nov;45(11):886-93.
4. Bharucha AE, Lacy BE. Mechanisms, Evaluation, and Management of Chronic Constipation. Gastroenterology. 2020 Apr;158(5):1232-1249.e3. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2019.12.034.
5. Camilleri M, Ford AC, Mawe GM, Dinning PG, Rao SS, Chey WD, Simrén M, Lembo A, Young-Fadok TM, Chang L. Chronic constipation. Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2017 Dec 14;3:17095.
6. Talley NJ, Jones M, Nuyts G, Dubois D. Risk factors for chronic constipation based on a general practice sample. Am J Gastroenterol. 2003 May;98(5):1107-11.
7. Müller-Lissner SA, Kamm MA, Scarpignato C, Wald A. Myths and misconceptions about chronic constipation. Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Jan;100(1):232-42.
8. World Gastroenterology Organisation. Coping with common gastrointestinal symptoms in the community: a global perspective on heartburn, constipation, bloating, and abdominal pain/discomfort May 2013. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2014 Aug;48(7):567-78.
9. Mayo Clinic 2019 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/constipation/symptoms-causes/syc-20354253 Last Accessed 01/11/2022