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What is constipation?

Constipation occurs when your bowel movements are less frequent than usual or you have stool that’s dry and hard, or difficult to pass. Constipation is different for everyone, but it’s often defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week.

Most people have constipation occasionally, but people who have symptoms that last for a long time, or that go away and come back, have chronic constipation.

Sometimes, constipation is related to an underlying disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also be caused by the use of opioids, a class of strong pain-relieving drugs.

Exercise and changes to your diet are often helpful to prevent or treat mild constipation. However, if these approaches don’t work, many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications are available.

Milder cases of constipation can often be treated using OTC medications, which are called laxatives. These include:

  • bulk-forming laxatives
  • lubricants
  • osmotic laxatives
  • stimulant laxatives
  • stool softeners
  • combination medications

Each type of laxative works in a slightly different way to relieve constipation. The main types of laxatives are listed below. All of these laxatives are available as generics, and most are available as brand-name products as well.

When looking for an OTC laxative, it’s helpful to be familiar with the generic name of the medication.

This is because with brand-name products, the manufacturer may sell different products containing different laxatives under the same brand name. These products may differ in how fast they work and what side effects they may cause.

Bulk-forming laxatives

Bulk-forming laxatives are also known as fiber supplements.

They work by pulling fluid into the intestines to make the stool softer and bulkier. This can help to produce muscle contractions in the intestines, which means the muscles tighten or squeeze. The contractions push the stool through your system.

Bulk-forming laxatives may take a few days to work, but they are safe for long-term use.

Types of bulk-forming laxatives include:

  • psyllium (Metamucil, Konsyl)
  • calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon)
  • methylcellulose fiber (Citrucel)

Bulk-forming laxatives often come in the form of powder or granules that you mix with water or other liquid and take by mouth.

However, bulk-forming laxatives also come in a number of other forms, such as:

  • liquid
  • tablets
  • packets
  • wafers

All forms of bulk-forming laxatives should be taken with plenty of water or other liquid. This helps to avoid fecal impaction, which is when stool becomes stuck in the intestine.

The more common side effects of bulk-forming laxatives are bloating or abdominal pain.

Shop for bulk-forming laxatives online.


Lubricant laxatives coat the stool to allow it to pass more easily through your intestines. These laxatives may begin working within 6 to 8 hours of when you take them.

Lubricant laxatives should not be used long term. Long-term use could lead to dependence, which means you would need lubricant laxatives to pass stool. In addition, long-term use could make you deficient in certain vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Mineral oil is the most common lubricant laxative.

It comes as an enema that’s available as a generic and as the brand-name product Fleet Mineral Oil Enema. Mineral oil also comes as a liquid you take by mouth. You can find the liquid as a generic called a “mineral oil lubricant laxative solution.”

The more common side effects of lubricant laxatives include stomach pain and cramping. These lubricants may also make your body absorb less of certain medications and vitamins. Ask your doctor if this effect is a concern for you.

Shop for lubricant laxatives online.

Osmotic laxatives

Osmotic laxatives help keep water within the intestines, which softens stool and can cause more frequent bowel movements.

Some of these products are also known as saline laxatives, including:

  • magnesium hydroxide
  • magnesium citrate
  • sodium phosphate

Osmotic laxatives come as:

These laxatives act quickly. The oral forms may work within 30 minutes. The suppositories and enemas may work even faster.

Osmotic laxatives include:

*The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that in rare cases, using excessive amounts of sodium phosphate products can cause serious kidney and heart damage and even death. The FDA recommends that you talk to a doctor before giving these medications to older adults, children, or people with heart or kidney problems.

Osmotic laxatives are generally safe to use long term, but you should be sure to drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated. Also, some people have reported that osmotic laxatives stop working if used too often.

The more common side effects of osmotic laxatives include:

  • stomach cramping
  • diarrhea

In some cases, the diarrhea can result in dehydration.

Shop for osmotic laxatives online.

Stimulant laxatives

Stimulant laxatives trigger the muscles in your intestines to contract, which moves the stool through the intestines. Typically, oral stimulant laxatives work within 6 to 10 hours.

Stimulant laxatives come as:

  • oral liquids
  • capsules
  • enemas
  • suppositories

Types of stimulant laxatives include:

  • bisacodyl (Dulcolax)
  • senna/sennoside (Senokot)

One of the more common side effects of stimulant laxatives is stomach cramping. In fact, these products are more likely than other laxatives to cause this effect.

You shouldn’t use stimulant laxatives as a long-term treatment. Your body may become tolerant to this type of medication. If that happens, your constipation will worsen when you stop taking the laxative.

Shop for stimulant laxatives online.

Stool softeners

Stool softeners add water and fats into the stool, creating softer bowel movements. These products are often recommended to prevent straining during bowel movements, which might be important if you’ve recently had surgery or given birth.

Typically, stool softeners take 1 to 3 days to take effect. Docusate (Colace, DulcoEase, Surfak) is a commonly used stool softener.

It comes in the following forms:

  • tablet
  • capsule
  • liquid
  • enema
  • suppository

Stool softeners have few side effects and are safe for long-term use.

Shop for stool softeners online.

Combination medications

Sometimes, two different OTC laxatives are combined into one product.

Most combination products contain a:

  • stool softener
  • stimulant laxative

An example of a common combination product is docusate-sodium-senna (Senokot-S and Peri-Colace).

Shop for combination stool softener and stimulant laxatives online.

TypeGeneric and brand namesFormsHow fast?Safe to use long-term?Available as a generic?
bulk-formingpsyllium (Metamucil, Konsyl), calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon), methylcellulose fiber (Citrucel)powder, granules, liquid, tablet, packet, wafera few daysyesyes
lubricantmineral oil (Fleet Mineral Oil Enema)enema, oral liquid6 to 8 hoursnoyes
osmoticmagnesium hydroxide (Phillips Milk of Magnesia), magnesium citrate, polyethylene glycol (Miralax), sodium phosphate (Fleet Saline Enema), glycerin (Fleet Glycerin Suppository)enema, suppository, oral liquid30 minutes or lessyesyes
stimulantbisacodyl (Dulcolax), senna/sennoside (Senokot)enema, suppository, oral liquid or capsule 6 to 10 hoursnoyes
stool softenerdocusate (Colace, DulcoEase, Surfak)Enema, suppository, oral tablet, capsule, or liquid1 to 3 daysyesyes

If you try OTC products and they don’t resolve your constipation, talk to your doctor. They may recommend a prescription medication. These medications are generally safe for long-term use.

Prescription constipation medications are typically recommended for people with:

Some are also recommended for people with opioid-induced constipation.

These medications aren’t meant to provide immediate relief. They don’t necessarily lead to a bowel movement within minutes to hours, as many of the OTC laxatives do. Instead, when you take a prescription product daily, your number of weekly bowel movements should increase.

Most people taking these medications have a bowel movement within the first 24 hours, with more frequent bowel movements seen within the first week or two of treatment.

The only types of prescription constipation medications available in the United States are:

  • linaclotide
  • plecanatide
  • lubiprostone
  • methylnaltrexone
  • naloxegol
  • naldemedine

Linaclotide (Linzess) and plecanatide (Trulance)

Linaclotide (Linzess) and plecanatide (Trulance) regulate the amount of fluid in the intestines. They also speed up the movement of stool through the intestines. Both of these drugs are used to treat chronic constipation. Linaclotide is also used to treat IBS-C.

Both products are only available as brand-name medications, which means they don’t have generic forms. Trulance comes as an oral tablet, and Linzess comes as an oral capsule.

Common side effects of these medications include:

  • diarrhea
  • gas
  • bloating
  • abdominal pain

Diarrhea may be severe and require you to stop using the medication.

These medications should not be used in children under age 18 years. Use is recommended for adults age 18 and over.

Lubiprostone (Amitiza)

Lubiprostone (Amitiza) helps increase fluid secretion in the intestines, which helps pass stool through the intestines.

Lubiprostone is used to treat:

  • chronic constipation
  • IBS-C
  • opioid-induced constipation

This medication comes as a capsule you take by mouth.

Common side effects include:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain

Methylnaltrexone (Relistor)

Methylnaltrexone (Relistor) works by blocking certain effects of opioids to treat opioid-induced constipation.

Opioids work by binding to pain receptors in your brain. However, they may also bind to receptors in your gut or intestines. When this happens, it can cause constipation.

Methylnaltrexone blocks opioids from binding to the receptors in your gut or intestines. However, it does not block opioids from binding to pain receptors in your brain. This action helps relieve constipation while still allowing for pain relief.

Methylnaltrexone comes as a tablet you take by mouth and as an injectable form.

Common side effects include:

  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain

Naloxegol (Movantik)

Naloxegol (Movantik) works in the same way as methylnaltrexone to treat opioid-induced constipation. It blocks certain effects of opioids that can cause constipation without blocking their pain-relieving effects.

Naloxegol comes as a tablet you take by mouth.

Common side effects include:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain

Naldemedine (Symproic)

Naldemedine (Symproic) also works in the same way as methylnaltrexone and naloxegol in treating opioid-induced constipation by blocking opioid effects in your gut and intestines without blocking the pain relief.

If you’ve been taking opioids for less than 4 weeks, it may be less effective.

Naldemedine comes as a tablet you take by mouth.

Common side effects include:

  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • gastroenteritis
Generic nameBrand nameFormsHow fast?Safe to use long-term?Available as a generic?
linaclotide Linzessoral capsulewithin 24 hours for most peopleyesno
plecanatideTrulanceoral tabletwithin 24 hours for most peopleyesno
lubiprostoneAmitizaoral capsulewithin 24 hours for most peopleyesno
methylnaltrexoneRelistor oral tablet, injectionwithin 24 hours for most peopleyesno
naloxegolMovantikoral tabletwithin 24 hours for most peopleyesno

Constipation occurs for different reasons, so medications used to treat it work in different ways. The treatment method for your condition may depend on:

  • the cause of your constipation
  • how long you’ve been constipated
  • the severity of your constipation

You may need to try more than one medication before you find the one that’s best for you.

It’s not a guarantee that your insurance plan covers constipation medications. Many plans don’t cover OTC laxatives. Your insurance plan is more likely to cover prescription drugs, but they may require that you try OTC medications first.

The availability of OTC laxatives can make it easy to treat your constipation on your own. However, in some cases, talking to your doctor is essential. Be sure to call your doctor if you’re constipated and you:

  • go more than 3 days without a bowel movement
  • have been using laxatives for more than a week and are still constipated
  • have had recent, unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more
  • have severe abdominal pain or cramps, blood in your stool, or weakness, dizziness, or fatigue
  • are pregnant or breastfeeding

You should also contact your doctor before giving a laxative to an infant or young child.

Almost everyone experiences constipation at some point in their life, but it’s usually a minor inconvenience.

However, if you have constipation, you should be sure to treat it for two reasons.

First, you’ll feel better when you have normal bowel movements again. Second, in rare cases, serious complications can result from untreated constipation. These complications can include:

If you have concerns about your bowel habits, talk with your doctor. They can help you create a treatment plan to relieve your constipation and get back to feeling good — regularly.