How long do stool softeners stay in your system?

Weekend Wellness: Talk to doctor before taking stool softener for chronic constipation

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: What are the long-term side effects of taking a stool softener daily? It is the only thing that keeps me regular, and when I have tried taking it every-other-day, it’s not effective.

ANSWER: At this time, no research has examined the specific long-term side effects of taking a stool softener every day. While the risks associated with taking this kind of over-the-counter medication daily are not likely to be significant, it would be a good idea to talk with your doctor about your symptoms. Although uncommon, an underlying health condition could be part of the problem.

Constipation typically is defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week or other symptoms (e.g., hard stools, excessive straining, or a sense of incomplete evacuation after defecation). Chronic constipation refers to these symptoms when they last for several weeks or longer.

Constipation is a common problem, and there are many types of laxatives available to help treat it. Stool softeners, also called emollients, are laxatives that work by drawing fluids into the intestines. This prevents dry, hard stool masses and makes it easier to have a bowel movement without straining.

Stool softeners you can buy over-the-counter are effective for most people. While they are only intended for short-term relief of constipation, using a daily stool softener long-term probably is not harmful. However, there are other ways to help relieve constipation that are often successful.

Diet often is one of the main drivers behind constipation. For many people, dietary changes can be an effective way to relieve constipation. For example, adding fiber to your diet may increase the weight of your stool and speed its passage through your intestines. Good sources of fiber include fresh fruits and green, leafy vegetables, as well as whole-grain breads and cereals. Do not add a significant amount of fiber to your diet quickly. A sudden increase in the amount of fiber you eat can cause bloating and gas, so start slowly.

When constipation is a problem, it is best to limit foods that can make it worse. In particular, try to avoid foods such as pastries, puddings, sugar, candy, cake and cheese.

Your fluid intake can have an effect on your bowel function, too. A good goal is to drink eight ounces of fluid six to eight times a day. Water is the best choice, but other liquids also can help you get the fluid you need each day.

A lack of physical activity may contribute to constipation. If you do not exercise regularly, consider adding it to your daily routine. Regular physical activity can help relieve constipation.

Depending on your medical history and your symptoms, your doctor may want to evaluate you for an underlying medical condition that could lead to chronic constipation. For example, a blockage in the colon or rectum may result in constipation. Nerve and muscle problems can affect the muscles in the colon and rectum, making it difficult for stool to move through the intestines. Conditions such as diabetes and thyroid disorders may change the balance of hormones in your body, and that can result in chronic constipation as well.

If you do not have a medical issue causing constipation, discuss with your doctor the best way to manage your condition. Depending on your individual circumstances, a daily stool softener or another simple laxative may be an appropriate remedy. Changing your diet and making other lifestyle changes are likely to have a positive effect, too. — Adil E. Bharucha, MBBS, M.D., Gastroenterology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.

What to Know About Stool Softeners If You’re Always Constipated

Backed up, irregular, clogged—however you decide to describe it, constipation is uncomfortable. You might realize you’re experiencing the condition if you’re pooping less often than usual, although everyone’s different: People may have as many as three bowel movements a day or as few as three a week, according to the Mayo Clinic. Experiencing dry stools that are too hard to pass may also be a sign of constipation, Lisa Ganjhu, DO, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health, tells Health.

For more on digestive conditions, check out our Digestive Health Condition Center

There are plenty of treatments available at the pharmacy that may provide relief. A stool softener, also known as an emollient laxative, is a type of laxative that may help by re-hydrating or moisturizing the stool, making it easier to pass without straining muscles. Stool softeners contain the active ingredient is docusate sodium, which “works by allowing more water to be absorbed by the stool,” says Ganjhu. (Stool softeners should be avoided if your stools are already too soft, she adds.)

Not all laxatives are stool softeners, however. Some are stimulants that work by triggering contractions of the muscles of the intestines. A lubricant laxative, which is made of mineral oil, helps move things along more smoothly. “Mineral oil literally adds oil to the stool to soften hard stools and make the walls of the colon ‘slippery’ for the stool to pass,” says Ganjhu. Bulk-forming laxatives, a different category, are absorbed by the intestines and create a bulky mass that moves through the bowels more smoothly.

RELATED: 15 Foods That Help You Poop

However, research suggests docusate sodium might not be your most effective bet when it comes to constipation relief. In one 2013 study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 35 patients were prescribed docusate sodium, while 39 patients were given a placebo. No significant differences in stool volume, frequency, or consistency were found. A 2001 study published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics prescribed 170 adult patients with chronic constipation either 5.1 g of psyllium—an over-the-counter soluble fiber used as a gentle, bulk-forming laxative—twice a day or 100 mg of docusate sodium twice a day. The patients that were treated with psyllium experienced greater stool frequency, water content, and output.

Before you look for over-the-counter alleviation, you may want to try natural constipation remedies first. Drinking more water “will increase water in the stool,” Ganjhu says, making poop easier to pass. She also recommends eating water-rich fruits like oranges, watermelon, and strawberries to help bulk up and soften the stool.

Ganjhu says she’ll start her patients on stool softeners if they are experiencing “hard stools or pain with passage of stools.” For those having a tough time pooping, she works with her own kind of “algorithm.” First, she’ll suggest a bulk-forming laxative in conjunction with water, exercise, and an increase in fruit and veggie consumption. If that doesn’t work, she’ll recommend an osmotic laxative, which works by pulling water back into the colon to soften the stool. If this fails, prescription drugs may be necessary.

If you’re looking for a little help from something OTC, here are some top-selling picks from Amazon in each category.

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Generic Name: docusate sodium 100mg capsules (DOK ue sate SOE dee um)
Brand Names: Dulcolax Stool Softener

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 18, 2018.

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What is Dulcolax Stool Softener?

Dulcolax Stool Softener (docusate) makes bowel movements softer and easier to pass.

Dulcolax Stool Softener 100mg capsules are used to treat or prevent occasional constipation.

Dulcolax Stool Softener is also used to reduce pain or rectal damage caused by hard stools or by straining during bowel movements.

Important Information

You should not use Dulcolax Stool Softener if you have a blockage in your intestines. Do not use Dulcolax Stool Softener while you are sick with nausea, vomiting, or severe stomach pain.

You should not take mineral oil while using Dulcolax Stool Softener.

Before taking this medicine

You should not use Dulcolax Stool Softener if you are allergic to docusate sodium, or if you have:

  • nausea, vomiting, or severe stomach pain;

  • a blockage in your intestines; or

  • chronic stomach pain that has not been checked by a doctor.

You should not take mineral oil while using Dulcolax Stool Softener.

Ask a doctor or pharmacist if it is safe for you to take docusate sodium:

  • if you are on a low-salt diet; or

  • if you have recently had a sudden change in your bowel habits lasting for longer than 2 weeks.

It is not known whether docusate sodium will harm an unborn baby. Do not use Dulcolax Stool Softener without a doctor’s advice if you are pregnant.

It is not known whether docusate sodium passes into breast milk or if it could harm a nursing baby. Do not use this medicine without a doctor’s advice if you are breast-feeding a baby.

Do not give this medicine to a child younger than 6 years old without the advice of a doctor.

How should I use Dulcolax Stool Softener?

Use Dulcolax Stool Softener exactly as directed on the label, or as prescribed by your doctor. Do not use in larger or smaller amounts or for longer than recommended.

Take this medicine with a full glass of water. Drink plenty of liquids while you are taking Dulcolax Stool Softener.

Do not chew, break, or open a Dulcolax Stool Softener 100mg capsule. Swallow the capsule whole.

After taking this medicine you should have a bowel movement within 12 to 72 hours.

Do not use Dulcolax Stool Softener for longer than 7 days unless your doctor has told you to. Call your doctor if your symptoms do not improve, or if you have not had a bowel movement within 1 to 3 days. Overuse of a stool softener can lead to serious medical problems.

Store at room temperature away from moisture and heat.

Dulcolax Stool Softener dosing information

Usual Dose for Constipation – Adults and Children over 12 years of age:

Oral: 100mg to 300 mg orally administered in 1 to 3 equally divided doses each day.

Usual Pediatric Dose for Constipation:

2 to 12 years: One 100mg capsule once a day.

What happens if I miss a dose?

Since Dulcolax Stool Softener is used when needed, you may not be on a dosing schedule. If you are on a schedule, use the missed dose as soon as you remember. Skip the missed dose if it is almost time for your next scheduled dose. Do not use extra medicine to make up the missed dose.

What happens if I overdose?

Seek emergency medical attention or call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222.

Overdose symptoms may include nausea, vomiting or stomach pain.

What should I avoid while using Dulcolax Stool Softener?

Avoid using laxatives or other stool softeners unless your doctor has told you to.

Dulcolax Stool Softener side effects

Get emergency medical help if you have any of these signs of an allergic reaction: hives; difficult breathing; swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Stop using Dulcolax Stool Softener and call your doctor at once if you have:

  • pounding heartbeats or fluttering in your chest;

  • a light-headed feeling, like you might pass out;

  • rectal bleeding or irritation;

  • numbness or a rash around your rectum;

  • vomiting, severe diarrhea or stomach cramps; or

  • continued constipation, or no bowel movement.

Common Dulcolax Stool Softener side effects may include:

  • dizziness, weakness;

  • gas, bloating, mild diarrhea;

  • rectal irritation; or

  • sweating.

This is not a complete list of side effects and others may occur. Call your doctor for medical advice about side effects. You may report side effects to FDA at 1-800-FDA-1088.

What other drugs will affect Dulcolax Stool Softener?

Other drugs may interact with docusate sodium, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal products. Tell each of your health care providers about all medicines you use now and any medicine you start or stop using.

Further information

Remember, keep this and all other medicines out of the reach of children, never share your medicines with others, and use Dulcolax Stool Softener only for the indication prescribed.

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Copyright 1996-2020 Cerner Multum, Inc. Version: 3.03.

Medical Disclaimer

More about Dulcolax Stool Softener (docusate)

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Consumer resources

Other brands: Colace, DOK, Surfak, Doc-Q-Lace, … +3 more

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Related treatment guides

  • Constipation

There’s nothing worse than that bloated, tight feeling in your gut when you just can’t poop. And when you’re struggling to relieve yourself, you’ll pretty much try anything to get your system running smoothly again.

So chances are, you’ve considered a laxative to speed things up. But what’s the difference between a stimulant laxative, and a stool softener, which is also marketed to help you go? What’s really the best fix for constipation?

Using a stimulant laxative or a stool softener every once and awhile isn’t a big deal, as long as you’re not depending on them regularly. But which one should you choose to cure your constipation when it does hit?

The right choice depends on whether you’re having a one-time or chronic problem, says gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, MD. If pooping isn’t generally an issue for you and you just need some help for the moment, a stimulant laxative like bisacodyl (Dulcolax) or senna (Sennokot) will do. These work by speeding up and strengthening your colon’s contractions, which aids in pushing your waste out.

You don’t want to use these too often, though, or they could lose their effectiveness. That can create a laxative dependence, leading you to need higher and higher doses in order to poop.

Herbal home remedies for constipation like aloe, cascara, and Smooth Move tea can have the same effect, says Dr. Bulesiewicz.

Stool softeners like docusate (Colace) work by reducing the hardness of stools, which should make them easier to pass. Problem is, they won’t do much if you’re already constipated, since they take three of four days to kick in, he adds. But they can help treat chronic constipation.

If you’re using laxatives more than once a month, Dr. Bulsiewicz recommends talking to a doctor about longer-term solutions like stool softeners. Another remedy might be to take fiber supplements, which adds bulk to your stool to help you go, and an osmotic laxative—which draws water into your intestines to help stool pass easier— like polyethylene glycol (Miralax) or milk of magnesia.

In rare cases, your constipation might not respond to any medication. This could point toward pelvic floor dyssynergia, a condition that stops your anal canal and pelvic muscles from relaxing, says Dr. Bulesiewicz. If you have this condition, you may feel like you have to keep pooping even if you already went, or like you didn’t fully poop when you did go. Treating this often requires physical therapy.

How to Tell If Your Poop is Normal:

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Instead of relying on meds to help you go, though, work on preventing constipation in the first place. The easiest way to do so? Make sure to consume plenty of water and fiber. Exercise can help too, says Bulsiewicz. “When you move, your colon will move as well.”

Related: 5 Ways to Make Yourself Poop

Another trick: Try sitting on the toilet at the same time every day for five minutes. If you can’t poop, just leave. “Having a routine establishes a rhythm that your body can follow,” says Bulsiewicz. “After a few days, your body will amazingly start to recognize what you’re trying to accomplish and ramp up to help accommodate your goal.”

Suzannah Weiss Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Playboy and more.

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