What is a stimulant laxative?

Laxatives help you pass stool (have a bowel movement). There are five basic types of laxatives:

  • Stimulant. Stimulant laxatives trigger the intestines to contract and push out the stool.
  • Osmotic. Osmotic laxatives draw water into the bowel from the surrounding tissues to soften stools and increase bowel movement frequency.
  • Bulk-forming. These laxatives contain fiber which soaks up the water in your intestines and produces bulkier stool. Larger stool makes the bowel contract and push out the stool.
  • Stool softeners. These mild laxatives soften dry, hard stool with water that they pull into the stool from the intestine, making it easier to push out the stool.
  • Lubricants. These oily laxatives coat the surface of the stool to retain stool fluid and make it easier to push out the stool.

The active ingredient in stimulant laxatives is usually either senna (also known as sennosides) or bisacodyl.

Stimulant laxatives can be used to treat constipation. They can be one of the faster acting types of laxative.


Healthy humans typically have bowel movements (BMs) between three times a week to three times a day. While doctors consider less than three bowel movements a week as constipation, there are other symptoms to consider, in addition to frequency.

Symptoms also associated with constipation include:

  • difficulty passing BMs
  • hard BM consistency
  • abdominal cramping
  • feelings of incomplete bowel movement

Untreated, chronic constipation might lead to fecal impaction. This condition occurs when your rectum becomes obstructed with a clog of fecal matter.

Some of the side effects that you can experience with stimulant laxatives include:

Also, you might notice that your urine turns a brownish-red color when you’re taking a laxative that uses senna.

As always, discuss the side effects from any medication you’re taking with your doctor. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following side effects while taking stimulant laxatives:

  • irregular heartbeat
  • faintness
  • confusion
  • muscle aches
  • fatigue or weakness
  • skin rash

You shouldn’t use a stimulant laxative if:

Also, before using a stimulant laxative, talk with your doctor about your current health conditions, especially:

And let your doctor know if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

  • Do not use stimulant laxatives for more than a week unless specifically advised by your doctor to do so.
  • Understand that stimulant laxatives can be habit forming and can be harmful to your bowels if used for an extended period of time.
  • Don’t give stimulant laxatives to a child under the age of 6 unless instructed to do so by the child’s pediatrician.
  • Follow the directions on the label unless instructed otherwise by your doctor.

At your drugstore, you’ll find many brands of stimulant laxatives in a variety of forms, such as liquids, powders, chewables, tablets, and suppositories. Here are some brand names:

  • Ex-Lax (sennosides)
  • Senexon (sennosides)
  • Fletcher’s Castoria (sennosides)
  • Senokot (sennosides)
  • Black Draught (sennosides)
  • Feen-A Mint (bisacodyl)
  • Correctol (bisacodyl)
  • Dulcolax (bisacodyl)
  • Carter’s Little Pills (bisacodyl)

Constipation can be very uncomfortable and worrisome. Stimulant laxatives work, for many people, as an effective treatment for constipation. These laxatives function by causing the intestinal muscles to rhythmically contract and help push out, or “stimulate” a bowel movement.

As with many medications, there are risks. Always discuss laxative use with your doctor, and follow their recommendations.