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Constipation

constipation; constipated; faeces; feces; poo; bowel; motion; fibre; stool;

Contents

Constipation affects everyone from time to time, but it is rarely serious and can usually be improved by changes in diet and exercise.  

What is constipation?

You may have constipation if it is harder than usual to do poo, if your poo is harder than usual and if you go less often than usual.

You may feel uncomfortable when you are constipated and feel the urge to go to the toilet, but be unable to pass much or anything solid.

Sometimes you may only pass runny poo when you are constipated, as only liquid poo is able to get out around the hard poo.

What causes it?

There are many causes. Some causes have to do with what we eat and drink, and others with how well the muscles of the gut are working.

Causes include:

  • not getting enough fibre or bulk in your diet
  • not drinking enough fluids – especially not enough water
  • not exercising enough (travelling can cause constipation if you sit still for a long time)
  • not eating enough food (such as with an eating disorder)
  • being ill (this can cause diarrhoea as well)
  • taking some medicines, such as painkillers with codeine in them
  • not going to the toilet when you need to - some people ignore the message to go to the toilet (maybe they don't want to use the toilet where they are), and the poo in their rectum gets drier and harder, and is not as easy to push out.

Also, for reasons that are not well understood, some people get constipated really easily, while others rarely get constipated. Being constipated seems to 'run' in some families.

How do you know if you are constipated?

If you can't go to the toilet easily when you feel the need to, and when you do it is hard, dry and painful, then you have constipation. Even if you only do poo a couple of times a week, this is not constipation if the poo is not hard. Some people have a pattern of doing poo only a couple of times a week and this is normal for them. Others may do poo every day, or more than once a day. They may be constipated if they change to a pattern of passing poo less often, and the poo is hard.

If liquid poo leaks onto your underwear without you noticing, you might have constipation.

You may also have some cramping pains in the tummy and feel bloated.

What are the effects?

Constipation does not cause health problems. No 'toxins' or poisons are absorbed from the large bowel. However, constipation can feel uncomfortable and passing hard, big lumps of poo can cause tearing of the skin of the anus, causing bleeding.

If you have any blood after going to the toilet, or mixed in with your poo, make sure you check with your doctor, as sometimes this can be a sign of more serious problems.

Fixing it

Here are some tips to help ease constipation:

  • Eat more fibre-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, cereals and bread
  • Exercise more. Walking is great.
  • Drink more water. Coffee, cola and energy drinks can make the problem worse.

Some people try laxatives but it is better to try other things first. If you do decide to try them, use those that increase fibre in the gut. Ask your pharmacist or doctor which ones to try. Bulking-forming laxatives that contain psyllium (such as Metamucil**) can be useful and are very safe. Taking some types of laxatives for more than a couple of days is usually not a good idea
Sometimes, if these don't work, medical help is needed. Your doctor may recommend an enema, which involves putting liquid into the rectum through the anus. This is not as bad as you may think!  Only a small amount of liquid needs to go into the rectum and this makes the rectum squeeze harder than usual.

Check with your doctor if…

  • you are constipated often
  • you are leaking liquid poo
  • there is any blood in your poo, or on toilet paper
  • you have any other concerns that are causing you to worry.

Resources

South Australia

  • Your family doctor or local pharmacist
  • Youth Health line 1300 13 17 19 
    9am to 5pm Monday to Friday 

More information

Better Health Channel (Victoria) 
http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au

Gastroenterological Society of Australia. 
http://www.gesa.org.au/ 

MedlinePlus - US National Library of Medicine 
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) USA 
http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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