Travel constipation, or vacation constipation, happens when suddenly find yourself unable to poop according to your regular schedule, whether it’s for a day or two or longer.
Constipation can occur for a number of reasons, from a sudden change in your diet or exercise to bodily changes from certain health conditions. It’s worth thinking about these possibilities when you suddenly can’t go number two.
But travel constipation is common after a long flight for pretty much all of these reasons. When you travel, your diet is usually interrupted, and sitting down for hours at a time can slow things down in your gut.
Annually more than 4 billion people take scheduled airplane flights. And that’s not even including all the travelers on road trips and train rides.
So you’re far from alone in having experienced this side effect of traveling. But there’s plenty you can do to treat it after it happens and prevent it from ever occurring in the first place.
Let’s get into why it happens, how you can treat and prevent travel constipation, and when you should see your doctor about it.
Bowel movements look different for every person. Some may poop multiple times a day, while others may only feel the need to go every few days.
But it’s crucial to keep track of your bowel movements so that you can recognize when you’re constipated. Here’s a general guideline for knowing when you’re constipated:
- You’re pooping fewer than three times a week.
- Your poops are dry and hard.
- You have to push or strain.
- Your gut still full or bloated even after you’ve pooped.
- You are experiencing a rectal blockage.
So what exactly causes this to happen?
The regularity of your bowel movements is tied to many factors, including:
- when you eat
- what you eat
- when you sleep
- when you exercise
- how healthy your gut bacteria are
- what environment you’re in
All of these factors can affect the timing of both fluid removal and muscle contractions in your colon.
As waste passes through the colon, fluid from the small intestine is removed, and muscles contract to push the remaining waste to your rectum to be expelled.
But this timing is highly dependent on your lifestyle. Sudden changes in diet or activity level can change your colon’s behavior.
Drinking less water, for example, can cause your colon to suck up extra moisture from your waste, making it dryer.
And changes in triggers for muscle contractions, such as eating and drinking, can delay contractions and make it take longer for poop to pass through.
This results in hard, dry, stools that can get stuck in your colon, resulting in constipation.
Here are some home remedies for constipation that you can try while you’re on the road or after you get home from a trip and still aren’t regular:
Make sure you’re drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of fluid or more each day. Travel with a reusable water bottle and find refill stations at airports or train stations.
Bring along travel snacks or meals rich in fiber so that you can get the recommended 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day. Try dried fruits and vegetables that are low in added sugars, or fiber bars and trail mix.
But remember you must drink enough fluids for the fiber to have a positive effect. If you just eat more fiber and don’t supplement with additional fluids, you could end up more constipated and gassy.
Pack fiber supplements
Fiber supplements — like psyllium (Metamucil) and calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon) — can help poop move through your intestines.
Try stool softeners
Use a stool softener before you head out on a long flight or trip. This can help you poop more often or more easily by making stool softer and easier to pass with natural intestinal moisture. Try an over-the-counter stool softener like docusate sodium (Colace).
Bring along an osmotic to help your colon produce more fluid. This includes over-the-counter (OTC) osmotics like magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia) and polyethylene glycol (Miralax).
Use a stimulant laxative if other methods fail
A stimulant laxative, such as sennosides (Ex-Lax) or bisacodyl (Dulcolax), can help your intestines have muscle contractions. However, using stimulants more often than necessary can make your colon depend on laxatives to function or
Do an enema
Use a commercially prepared enema (like Fleet) or a glycerin suppository in your rectum to stimulate a bowel movement.
Try drinking a natural lubricant for your bowels, like mineral oil.
Here are some possible medical treatments for constipation in case it’s not going away after a few days:
- Medications that bring water in your gut to treat chronic constipation. Prescription medications like plecanatide (Trulance), Lubiprostone (Amitiza), and linaclotide (Linzess) make sure your intestines have enough fluids to help poop move through them more easily.
- Serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine 4 receptors. These medications, such as prucalopride (Motegrity), can make it easier for poop to get through the colon.
- Peripherally acting mu-opioid receptor antagonists (PAMORAs). Constipation can be more severe if you’re also taking certain pain medications, such as opioids, while you travel. PAMORAs like methylnaltrexone (Relistor) and naloxegol (Movantik) can fight against these side effects of pain medications.
- Surgery for obstructions or blockages that prevent you from pooping may need to be surgically cleared or removed. In severe cases, you may need part of your colon removed to reduce the occurrence of blockages or obstructions.
Here are some tips to prevent constipation while you’re traveling:
- Try to maintain your usual diet, sleep, and exercise routine while you travel. Eat the same meals at the same times and try to sleep at your usual times.
- Reduce or avoid caffeine or alcohol while you’re traveling, as these can make you dehydrated and increase your risk of constipation.
- Avoid snacks or meals that can reduce bowel movement. This includes cooked meats, processed meats, cheeses, and milk.
- Eat snacks with probiotics to help encourage the growth of healthy bacteria to have regular, healthy bowel movements. You may want to start doing this a few days before you travel so that the bacteria has time to grow.
- Be careful about eating any new foods in the places you’re traveling. Different countries have various ingredients and cooking styles that might affect your bowel movements in unexpected ways.
- Try to stay active while you’re traveling. Aim for around 20 minutes of activity a day (about 150 minutes a week). Try stretching, jogging in place, or going to a gym in the airport or in a city you’re staying in.
- Go poop as soon as you feel ready. The longer your poop stays in your colon, the more likely it may become dry and hard.
Constipation is normal when you travel. But you should see your doctor if you have symptoms of constipation frequently, or if you’ve had constipation for a few days or weeks with no sign that a bowel movement is coming.
Here are some symptoms you should watch out for that may mean you need to see your doctor as soon as possible:
- You haven’t had a bowel movement in over a week, or have been constipated (occasional bowel movements) for over 3 weeks.
- You feel abnormal pain or tightness in your lower abdomen.
- It hurts when you poop.
- There’s blood in your poop.
- You’ve lost a lot of weight for no apparent reason.
- Your bowel movements change suddenly without any obvious disruptions in your diet or lifestyle.
Travel constipation can happen to all of us, whether it’s after a short road trip to a neighboring state or a several-days-long flight across a continent or an ocean.
But you can do a lot to prevent the worst of travel constipation and even make sure your bowels don’t miss a beat — just try to maintain your usual level of diet and activity as closely as possible no matter what your vacation destination is.