Describes constipation in those 12 and older. Covers symptoms, including few bowel movements, straining, and passing hard stools. Discusses treatment, including diet and use of laxatives. Includes interactive tool to help you decide when to call a doctor.
Constipation, Age 12 and Older
Constipation occurs when stools are difficult
to pass. Some people are overly concerned with the frequency of their bowel
movements, because they have been taught that a healthy person has a bowel
movement every day. This is not true. Most people pass stools anywhere from 3
times a day to 3 times a week. If your stools are soft and pass easily, you are
Constipation is present if you have 2 or fewer
bowel movements each week or you do not take laxatives
and have 2 or more of the following problems at least 25% of the time:
Feeling that you do not
completely empty your bowels
Hard stools, or stools that look like
A feeling of being blocked up
You can't pass
stools unless you put a finger in your rectum or use manual pressure to pass a
Constipation may occur with cramping and pain in the rectum
caused by the strain of trying to pass hard, dry stools. You may have some
bloating and nausea. You may also have small amounts of bright red blood on the
stool or on the toilet tissue, caused by bleeding
hemorrhoids or a slight tearing of the anus (anal fissure) as the stool is pushed through the
anus. This should stop when the constipation is
Constipation can mean the slow movement of stool through the intestines or problems releasing a stool.
Slow transit constipation
Lack of fiber is a common cause of constipation. Other
Constipation is sometimes
caused by poor muscle tone in the pelvic area (outlet delay). Excessive
straining, needing manual pressure on the vaginal wall, or feelings of
incomplete emptying may be a symptom of this type of constipation. Outlet delay
constipation is caused by:
Delaying bowel movements because of convenience issues or
because having a bowel movement causes pain.
Constipation is more common in people older than 65.
People in this age group are more likely to have poor dietary habits and
increased medicine use. Older adults also often have decreased muscular
activity of the intestinal tract, which increases the time it takes for stool
to move through the intestines. Physical problems, such as
arthritis, may make sitting on the toilet
uncomfortable or painful.
Women report problems with constipation more often
If a stool becomes lodged in the rectum (impacted), mucus
and fluid may leak out around the stool, sometimes leading to leakage of fecal
material (fecal incontinence). You may experience this as constipation
alternating with episodes of diarrhea.
Blood in the stool can come from
anywhere in the digestive tract, such as the stomach or intestines. Depending
on where the blood is coming from and how fast it is moving, it may be bright
red, reddish brown, or black like tar.
A little bit of bright red
blood on the stool or on the toilet paper is often caused by mild irritation of
the rectum. For example, this can happen if you have to strain hard to pass a
stool or if you have a hemorrhoid.
Certain medicines and foods can affect the color of stool. Diarrhea
medicines (such as Pepto-Bismol) and iron tablets can make the stool black.
Eating lots of beets may turn the stool red. Eating foods with black or dark
blue food coloring can turn the stool black.
If you take a medicine that affects the blood's ability to clot, such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), or clopidogrel (Plavix), it can cause some blood in your stools. If you take a blood thinner and have ongoing blood in your stools, call your doctor to discuss your symptoms.
Pain in adults and older children
Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain
is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and
can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your
normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days.
Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's
Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain,
but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Constipation, Age 11 and Younger
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
Your age. Babies and older
adults tend to get sicker quicker.
Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart
disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care
Medicines you take. Certain
medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them
Recent health events, such as surgery
or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them
Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug
use, sexual history, and travel.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical
Make an appointment to see your doctor in the
next 1 to 2 weeks.
If appropriate, try home treatment while you
are waiting for the appointment.
If symptoms get worse or you have
any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Try gentle exercise. Take a short walk each
day. Gradually increase your walking time until you are walking for at least 20
Make sure you drink enough fluids. Most adults should try
to drink between 8 and 10 glasses of water or noncaffeinated beverages each
day. Avoid alcoholic beverages and caffeine, which can increase
dehydration. If you have heart failure or kidney
failure, talk to your doctor about what amount of fluid is right for
Include fruits, vegetables, and fiber in your diet each day.
Have a bran muffin or bran cereal for breakfast, and try eating a piece of
fruit for a mid-afternoon snack.
Schedule time each day for a bowel
movement (after breakfast, for example). Establishing a daily routine may help.
Take your time. Do not be in a hurry.
Support your feet with a small step stool [about
6 in. (15 cm)] when you sit on
the toilet. This will help flex your hips and place your pelvis in a more
normal "squatting" position for having a bowel movement.
If you are still constipated:
Add some processed or synthetic fiber—such as
Citrucel, Metamucil, or Perdiem—to your diet each day.
Try a stool
softener, such as Colace, if your stools are very hard.
rectal glycerin suppository. Follow the directions on the label. Do not use
more often than recommended on the label.
You may at times need to try a laxative. If your teen has constipation problems, talk to your teen's doctor before trying laxatives.
Osmotic laxatives (such as Fleet Phospho-Soda, Milk of Magnesia, or Miralax) and nonabsorbable sugars (such as lactulose or sorbitol) hold fluids in the intestine. They also draw fluids into the intestine from other tissue and blood vessels. This extra fluid in the intestines makes the stool softer and easier to pass. Drink plenty of water when you use this type of laxative.
laxatives (such as Ex-Lax or Feen-a-Mint) speed up the movement of stool through the intestine. Use these
preparations sparingly. Overuse of stimulant laxatives decreases the tone and
sensation in the large intestine, causing dependence on using laxatives.
Regular use may interfere with your body's ability to absorb vitamin D and
calcium, which can weaken your bones. Do not use laxatives for longer than 2
weeks without consulting your doctor.
If you are
still constipated, check your symptoms to determine if and when
you need to see your doctor.
Talk to your doctor before using an
enema. Your doctor may need to check your symptoms or may suggest a different
way to treat your constipation.
Constipation occurs or continues after 1 week of home treatment.
Rectal pain develops or
Blood in the stool develops or
Uncontrolled leakage of
Your symptoms become more severe or more
If you have any of these symptoms, you need to be evaluated
by a doctor.
You can prevent constipation.
Drink plenty of fluids, enough so that your urine is light yellow or clear like water.
Add high-fiber foods to your diet. Try to get 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day. Packaged foods and
fiber supplements include the amount of fiber content in the nutrition
information. You should increase the amount of fiber in your diet slowly so
that your stomach can adjust to the change. Adding too much fiber too quickly
may cause stomach upset and gas.
Eat at least 1½ to 2 cups of fruit a day. Choose whole fruit instead of fruit juice.
Eat at least 2 to 3 cups of vegetables a day.
Increase the amount of high-fiber foods, such as bran flakes,
bran muffins, oatmeal, brown rice, beans, and lentils. Eat
brown rice, bulgur, or millet instead of white rice.
Use whole wheat bread instead of white bread.
Choose whole-grain breads and cereals; buy bread that lists whole wheat,
stone-ground wheat, or cracked wheat in the ingredients.
Snack on unbuttered, unsalted popcorn.
2 Tbsp of wheat bran to
cereal or soup. If you do this, start slowly with
1 tsp a day. Gradually
increase the amount to
2 Tbsp a
2 Tbsp of psyllium
(found in Metamucil and other bulk-forming agents) with a fluid, and drink it.
Avoid alcohol beverages. They can increase
Exercise more. A walking program would be a good
start. For more information, see the topic
Set aside relaxing times for
having bowel movements. Urges usually occur sometime after meals. Establishing
a daily routine for bowel movements, such as after breakfast, may
Go when you feel the urge. Your bowels send signals when a
stool needs to pass. If you ignore the signal, the urge will go away, and the
stool will eventually become dry and difficult to pass.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.