What is a stool softener?
Stool softeners are medications that can help treat mild constipation. They’re a type of laxative called an emollient laxative. Emollient laxatives help liquids mix into your poop (stool) to prevent dry, hard masses from forming. Stool softeners don’t cause you to have a bowel movement, but they allow you to go without straining.
What’s the difference between a stool softener and a laxative?
A stool softener is a type of laxative. Laxatives are any medicine that encourages your body to have a bowel movement. There are many different kinds of laxatives because many different things cause constipation. Some laxatives work on your poop and some work on your intestines. Other laxatives work on both, but they all can help relieve constipation
What does a stool softener do?
You can use a stool softener on a short-term basis to help relieve occasional constipation. Lifestyle factors and pregnancy can both cause constipation. Constipation is also a side effect of some health conditions and medications. Stool softeners are especially helpful for people who should avoid straining while having a bowel movement due to:
- Heart conditions, such as recent heart attacks.
- Recent childbirth.
- Recent medical procedures and surgeries.
How do stool softeners work?
Stool softeners are a type of emollient or surfactant laxative. They work by increasing the amount of water and fat your poop (stool) absorbs. This makes your poop softer and easier to pass. The active ingredients in stool softeners are docusate sodium and docusate calcium. A common brand of docusate is (Colace®).
What are the different types of stool softeners?
You can take stool softeners orally or rectally. Stool softener pills come in the form of tablets or capsules. You take them by mouth (orally). You also take syrup or liquid stool softeners orally.
Some stool softeners come in the form of a rectal enema. You inject the medicine directly into your rectum (rectally). They look kind of like a stool softener suppository. However, you don’t inject a suppository. Rather, they melt or dissolve at body temperature.
In addition to or instead of medication, you may want to try natural stool softeners for mild constipation. Natural stool softeners include lifestyle changes to help you ease your symptoms. Lifestyle changes may include:
- Drinking more water.
- Getting regular exercise.
- Increasing your daily fiber intake.
- Taking a probiotic.
When is the best time to take a stool softener?
The best time to take a stool softener is usually at bedtime. You should follow the directions on the packaging or ask your healthcare provider for specific instructions.
How should I take a stool softener?
Only take a stool softener when needed. You should always take the medication exactly as directed. Don’t take more or less of the prescribed dose, and don’t take it more often than directed. Your specific medical condition will determine the correct dosage. If you develop diarrhea, stop taking the medication and call your doctor’s office if diarrhea does not resolve.
- Capsules and tablets: Swallow capsules and tablets whole. Don’t split, chew or crush them. Take pills with a full glass of water (8 ounces or 240 milliliters).
- Liquid or syrup: Shake the bottle well before using. The liquid comes with a specially marked spoon or device for measuring the correct dose. (Don’t use a household spoon. You may not get the correct dose.) Mix the liquid with 4 to 8 ounces (120 to 240 milliliters) of milk, fruit juice or formula to cover up its bitter taste and prevent throat irritation.
- Enema: Wash your hands before using. Remove the tip from the enema and gently insert the enema tip directly into your rectum. Squeeze the tube until all of the medicine is inside your rectum. With the tube still squeezed, remove the enema tip. Don’t take this type of stool softener by mouth.
If your child has constipation, consult their healthcare provider before giving them a stool softener. They may need special care and instructions.
There are many different types of laxatives. Ask your healthcare provider to help you find the specific type you need for your condition. Don’t take stool softeners containing docusate for bowel preparation for a colonoscopy.
How long do stool softeners take to work?
It can take between 12 to 72 hours for a stool softener that is taken as directed to begin to work.
Can you take stool softeners every day?
No, and you shouldn’t need to take stool softeners every day. Don’t take stool softeners for more than one week unless you’re under the direction of your healthcare provider. If you have sudden changes in your bowel habits that last longer than two weeks, call your provider. If your poop (stool) is still hard or difficult to pass after you’ve taken a stool softener for one week, call your provider.
Do I need to worry about any interactions while taking stool softeners?
If you’re taking other medications, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider before taking a stool softener. Stool softeners can change the effects of other drugs you take. Your chances of developing serious side effects may go up as well. Mineral oil and drugs that contain phenolphthalein may affect the way stool softeners work.
Can I take stool softeners while pregnant?
Up to 39% of people experience constipation during pregnancy. Before using a stool softener, tell your healthcare provider if:
- You’re pregnant.
- You plan to become pregnant.
- You’re breastfeeding (chestfeeding).
If you become pregnant while taking a stool softener or are breastfeeding, call your healthcare provider for guidance. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should only use a stool softener when their provider recommends it. You should discuss the benefits and risks of the medication with your provider.
What are the possible side effects of stool softeners?
Most healthcare providers consider stool softeners safe to use. If your provider has recommended you use one, they’ve determined that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects. Let your provider know if any side effects become severe or don’t go away. Stool softener side effects may include:
- Stomach or intestinal pain or cramps.
- Throat irritation (from oral stool softeners).
Some side effects can be more serious. If you have any of the following symptoms after taking a stool softener, call your healthcare provider right away:
- Hives or swelling of your face, tongue or throat.
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing.
- Rectal bleeding.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Constipation is a common symptom of certain lifestyle habits and pregnancy. It can also be a side effect of certain medications and health conditions. Stool softeners are a type of laxative that can provide short-term relief for constipation. If you use a stool softener, follow all directions on the packaging. Don’t use stool softeners for more than one week without consulting your healthcare provider. If your symptoms last longer than a week, reach out to your health care provider for additional guidance.
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