Rectal suppositories are forms of medication that are inserted into the rectum. They come in different shapes and sizes but are usually narrowed at one end.

Rectal suppositories can deliver many types of medication. For instance, they may contain glycerin to treat constipation or acetaminophen to treat a fever.

Medication from a rectal suppository tends to work quickly. This is because the suppository melts inside the body and is absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

Learn more about the potential benefits and side effects of rectal suppositories, as well as a step-by-step guide on how to administer them.

Rectal suppositories are used for administering medications when you cannot do so orally. Such methods may be especially helpful for young children and older adults who cannot take medications by mouth, according to a 2021 review.

For example, fever-reducing medications such as acetaminophen may be administered rectally if you cannot take the oral versions due to vomiting or other issues that might otherwise prevent you from swallowing liquids or tablets. Taking fever-reducing drugs rectally can also reduce possible adverse effects on the stomach and small intestine.

Aside from these medications, rectal suppositories have been historically used for the administration of substances including hemorrhoid treatments and laxatives. Other medications that may be administered via rectal suppository can include:

In some cases, medications may also be given rectally to individuals who may be unconscious, according to the same 2021 review.

Leakage of the medication, as well as personal pain and discomfort, are all possible side effects associated with rectal suppositories. Proper insertion and following post-administration instructions may help reduce these effects.

According to a 2019 review of research, certain health conditions that affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract may also reduce the effectiveness of the drugs being administered rectally, and even increase the risk of pain. Talk with a doctor about any history of IBD, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other GI conditions before using rectal suppositories.

Note that you shouldn’t administer acetaminophen both rectally and orally, as this can potentially lead to an overdose and subsequent liver damage.

You can use these instructions to use a rectal suppository by yourself. If you’re a parent or caregiver, you can also use these steps to give a suppository to a child or another adult. If you have trouble giving yourself a rectal suppository, ask a loved one to follow these steps to help you.

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Illustration by Alexis Lira

What you’ll need

To insert a rectal suppository, you’ll first need soap and water or hand sanitizer to clean your hands. You may also need a clean, single-edge razor blade and lubricating jelly.

Before

  1. If possible, go to the bathroom and empty your bowels.
  2. Wash your hands with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer instead. Dry your hands with a clean towel or a paper towel.
  3. Gently squeeze the suppository to check if it is firm enough to insert. If it’s not, let it harden by holding it under cold water while it’s still in the wrapper. You can also place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes.
  • Remove your clothing to expose your buttocks.
  • Remove any wrapping from the suppository. If you need to cut the suppository, carefully cut it lengthwise with a clean, single-edge razor blade.
  • To moisten the tip of the suppository, apply a lubricating jelly such as K-Y Jelly. If you do not have lubricating jelly, apply a small amount of water to your rectal area.

During

  1. Get into position. You can either stand with one foot up on a chair, or you can lie down on your side with your top leg slightly bent toward your stomach and your bottom leg straight. If you’re giving the suppository to someone else, you may want to place them in this second position.
  • Relax your buttocks to make it easier to insert the suppository.
  • Insert the suppository into the rectum, narrow end first. Gently but firmly, push the suppository past the sphincter. The sphincter is the muscular opening of the rectum. For adults, push it in about 3 inches or far enough in so that it will not pop out. For children, depending on their size, push it in about 2 inches. And for smaller children or infants, push it in about a half-inch.

After

  1. Sit or lie with your legs closed for a few minutes. If you’re giving the suppository to a child, you may need to gently hold their buttocks closed during this time.
  2. Throw away all used material in a trash can.
  3. Wash your hands right away with soap and warm water.

Helpful tips

  • Unless the suppository is a laxative, try not to empty your bowels for 1 hour after inserting the suppository. Also avoid exercise or lots of movement for 1 hour after inserting the suppository.
  • Store the suppositories in a cool place to prevent melting. Keep them in the refrigerator if the medication label says to do so.
  • You can use latex gloves or finger cots to protect your fingers while inserting the suppository. You can buy these at your local pharmacy.
  • Consider trimming your fingernails to help prevent cuts and scratches while inserting the suppository.
  • Avoid using petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, to lubricate the suppository. It can keep the suppository from melting after it is inserted.

Overall, the recommended position for rectal suppository administration is on your side. This allows for easy access to the buttocks during self-administration but can also be easier for giving the suppository to someone else. For best results, lie on your left side and bend your knees toward your chest.

If the first position is not comfortable, or if you’re having difficulties inserting the suppository, you can also try kneeling face down with your hips lifted, and your head toward the floor.

You’ll know you have inserted the suppository far enough if the tip does not immediately come out. However, it’s also important to know the insertion depth limits, which can vary by age:

Age GroupSuppository Insertion
AdultsAbout 3 inches
Children2 inches or less
Infants½ inch

If the suppository comes out after you insert it, you may not have pushed it far enough into the rectum. Be sure to push the suppository past the sphincter, which is the muscular opening of the rectum.

These steps should make it easier to insert a rectal suppository. If you have questions or if you’re having trouble inserting a suppository, talk with a doctor or pharmacist. You should also talk with them if you have a history of GI conditions, or if you experience any side effects, such as ongoing pain and discomfort.

Rectal suppositories are alternatives to taking oral medications. This method may be preferable if you or your child cannot take medications by mouth.

Be sure to follow the instructions given for proper rectal suppository insertion. This will help ensure the medication is administered properly, and will also reduce the risk of pain and other side effects.

Talk with a doctor if you’re having issues with rectal suppositories, or if other questions and concerns arise.