You can’t watch television without seeing commercials marketing products that relieve constipation. Many of these products are bulk-forming laxatives. If you’re thinking about using one to ease irregularity symptoms, there are some things you should know.

What Are Bulk-Forming Laxatives?

Bulk-forming laxatives absorb liquid in the intestines. This creates a bulky, more liquidy stool that’s softer and easier to pass. Common bulk-forming laxatives include psyllium (Metamucil), polycarbophil (FiberCon), and methylcellulose (Citrucel).

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Other types of laxatives include:

  • osmotic laxatives
  • lubricant laxatives
  • stimulant laxatives
  • stool softeners

Bulk-forming laxatives are different from other laxatives. They’re most similar to stool softeners in that they help the bowels retain water. Unlike stimulant laxatives, they don’t stimulate nerves that speed up the movement of bowels through the intestines. They also don’t lubricate the stools like lubricant laxatives do. Osmotic laxatives help the intestines — not the bowels — retain water, so bulk-forming laxatives differ from these too.

Benefits of Bulk-Forming Laxatives

A bulk-forming laxative may help if you experience chronic constipation due to diet or medication.

Some people prefer bulk-forming laxatives because there’s usually a more gradual improvement of constipation symptoms. They’re often the first line of defense before stimulant or other types of laxatives are used. There is also less risk of the cramping or explosive diarrhea that occurs with stimulant laxatives.

Laxatives may be beneficial:

  • during pregnancy or for a few days after birth
  • during surgery prep
  • in treating constipation in bedridden people
  • in treating constipation caused by medication
  • in preventing strain after surgery
  • in restoring normal bowel function after a period of poor eating or physical inactivity
  • in improving medical conditions made worse by straining, such as hemorrhoids, heart disease, hernia, stroke, or high blood pressure

Bulk-forming laxatives may also be used to help reduce cholesterol or to treat diarrhea.

Side Effects and Precautions

Bulk-forming laxatives are generally safe for healthy people. However, side effects or drug interactions may occur, including:

  • intestinal blockage
  • itching
  • skin rash
  • difficulty swallowing
  • feeling like there’s a lump in your throat
  • difficulty breathing

You may also experience mild stomach pain, bloating, or gas.

Some people experience allergic reaction to psyllium. Call your doctor right away if you experience:

  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • itching
  • stomach pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Take bulk-forming laxatives with at least 8 ounces of water or fruit juice. This will help prevent bowel obstruction. A second glass of water or juice may help prevent additional side effects. Be sure to follow the dosage instructions on the label.

You should begin to feel relief within 12 hours to 3 days.

Avoid bulk-forming laxatives and consult your doctor if any of the following apply:

  • You have symptoms of appendicitis or inflamed bowel. These include nausea, vomiting, cramping, lower abdominal pain, stomach pain, or bloating.
  • You miss a bowel movement for a day or two.
  • You develop a rash.
  • You experience a sudden change in bowel habits or function lasting two weeks or more.
  • You’ve taken medication within the last two hours.

Tell your doctor before using bulk-forming laxatives if you have:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • kidney problems
  • rectal bleeding
  • intestinal blockage
  • difficulty swallowing

People with kidney disease or diabetes are at risk of electrolyte imbalances when taking laxatives. Although your risk may be lower with bulk-forming laxatives, you should still consult your doctor before use if you have either condition.

Drug Interactions

Laxatives may impact how your body absorbs medications. As a result, you shouldn’t take any medication within two hours of taking a laxative. In addition, you shouldn’t mix oral and rectal laxatives.

A Short-Term Fix

When constipation strikes, it’s nice to know help in the form of a bulk-forming laxative is just a drugstore away. While laxatives may bring relief, they should only be used in the short term, unless instructed otherwise by your doctor.

To help prevent constipation in the first place, eat a high-fiber diet consisting of whole grains, fruits, and leafy vegetables. Drink plenty of fluids and avoid constipating foods such as cheese or high-sugar, processed foods.

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