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September 25, 2014


Constipation refers to bowel movements that are infrequent or hard to pass.

Many of us may one day be affected by occasional constipation. Discover the facts about intestinal irregularity. Learn what it is, what causes it and some simple ways to prevent and treat it to get effective relief.

A common problem

Most people don’t like to talk about constipation, even though it affects many people at some point. Generally speaking, it is a benign and temporary gastrointestinal disorder. However, it can cause you to feel uncomfortable and frustrated. Constipation can cause discomfort when going about your daily activities and can also negatively impact your quality of life. It can cause physical problems such as:

  • painful bowl movement;
  • hard, dry stool that can become stuck in the rectum;
  • bloating.

Did you know?

  • Between 12% and 19% of North Americans suffer from chronic constipation.
  • Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from constipation. This can be attributed to certain hormones that help regulate the menstrual cycle.

What are the symptoms of constipation?

Constipation refers to bowel movements that are infrequent or hard to pass.

Here are some common symptoms of constipation:

  • Experiencing fewer bowel movements than usual;
  • Passing fewer than 3 stools a week;
  • Having dry, hard or small stools;
  • Straining to have bowel movements;
  • A sensation that the bowels haven’t completely emptied.


Important—See a doctor if:

  • constipation starts suddenly (and you weren’t suffering from it before) or is accompanied by blood in the stool, fever, vomiting or severe abdominal pain; these symptoms may be signs of a serious illness;
  • constipation lasts longer than three weeks. For one thing, persistent constipation can result in complications (hemorrhoids, anal fissures or bowel obstruction). For another, it may indicate an underlying health issue that requires medical attention.

What causes constipation?

Once food passes through the digestive tract, the body absorbs the nutrients and water that it needs. Involuntary muscle contractions move digested food, in the form of food residue, through the intestine.

Sometimes, slow-moving contractions may cause digestion to become too slow. The longer the residue (stool) remains in your colon (large intestine), the more water it absorbs, making it even more difficult to pass.

Certain factors can affect the normal functioning of the digestive tract:

  • inadequate hydration;
  • a diet that’s low in fibre;
  • lack of physical activity;
  • imbalance in gut flora;
  • eating certain foods that can cause constipation (e.g. cheese, white rice);
  • changes in diet;
  • stress;
  • pregnancy;
  • menstruation;
  • illness;
  • taking certain medications;
  • frequently resisting the urge to have a bowel movement.

Speak to your doctor to find out if any of your medications could be causing constipation.

How can you treat constipation?

Living a healthy lifestyle is an effective way to prevent and manage constipation. Here are some simple changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle:

  • drink plenty of fluids (the equivalent of 8 glasses of water per day);
  • stay active (e.g. 30 minutes of walking every day);
  • include more fibre in your diet (fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.);
  • eat prunes or figs;
  • try to go to the toilet as soon as you feel the urge;
  • avoid taking laxatives over an extended period of time, unless otherwise instructed by a health care professional.


How do laxatives work?

Gradually increases the amount of water that is drawn into the colon, softening stools. Increases the frequency of bowel movements without causing cramps, gas, or bloating. Stools may become more frequent and less solid.

Contain fibre that increase stool size, helping bowel retain water and softening stools. Eating a diet that is high in fibre is important, however, eating too much fibre can cause bloating and excessive gas. It is essential to drink enough water when taking this type of laxative as it could cause constipation.

Increase water content in the intestines and soften stools. They are often associated with a number of adverse effects; prolonged use may lead to electrolyte imbalance.

Allow stools to travel more easily through the intestines by making the stool greasy. They can however cause vitamin A, D, E and K deficiencies.

Increase the amount of water in the colon, allowing stools to pass more easily. However, prolonged use may lead to electrolyte imbalance.

Stimulate the natural contractions of intestinal muscles, allowing stool to move more easily through your colon. They can cause abdominal cramping; frequent use can lead to colonic inertia (a “lazy bowel”).


Be cautious when using laxatives

Many laxatives are sold over-the-counter, but they are not without risk. Prolonged, excessive use of laxatives without first consulting with a doctor can have adverse effects on the digestive system and may lead to dependence.

You should only take laxatives when necessary and for a maximum of seven days in a row. The only exception is “bulk-forming” laxatives, for example, psyllium-based products, which can be used long-term. Nevertheless, in order to enhance their effects, you must increase fluid and water intake.

Pharmacy services

Want to learn more about laxatives and how to use them? Talk to your family pharmacist for information and advice!

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