Laxatives are products that promote bowel movements.


Laxatives are used to treat constipation—the passage of small amounts of hard, dry stools, usually fewer than three times a week. Before recommending use of laxatives, differential diagnosis should be performed. Prolonged constipation may be evidence of a significant problem such as localized peritonitis or diverticulitis. Complaints of constipation may be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Use of laxatives should be avoided in these cases. Patients should be aware that patterns of defecation are highly variable, and may vary from two to three times daily to two to three times weekly.

Laxatives may also be used prophylacticly for patients such as those recovering from a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or those who have had recent surgery and should not strain during defecation.


Laxatives may be grouped by mechanism of action.

Saline cathartics include dibasic sodium phosphate (Phospo-Soda), magnesium citrate, magnesium hydroxide (milk of magnesia), magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), sodium biphosphate, and others. They act by drawing to and holding water in the intestinal tissues, and may produce a watery stool. Magnesium sulfate is the most potent of the laxatives in this group.

Stimulant and irritant laxatives increase the peristaltic movement of the intestine. Product examples include cascara and bisadocyl (Dulcolax). Castor oil works in a similar fashion.

Bulk-producing laxatives increase the volume of the stool, and will both soften the stool and stimulate intestinal motility. Psyillium (Metamucil, Konsil) and methyl-cellulose (Citrucel) are examples of this type. The over-all effect is similar to that of eating high-fiber foods, and this class of laxative is most suitable for regular use.

Docusate (Colace) is the only representative example of the stool softener class. It holds water within the fecal mass, providing a larger, softer stool. Docusate has no effect on acute constipation, since it must be present before the fecal mass forms to have any effect, but may be useful for prevention of constipation in patients with recurrent problems, or those who are about to take a constipating drug such as narcotic analgesics .

Mineral oil is an emollient laxative. It acts by retarding intestinal absorption of fecal water, thereby softening the stool.

The hyperosmotic laxatives are glycerin and lactulose (Chronulac, Duphalac), both of which act by holding water within the intestine. Lactulose may also increase peristaltic action of the intestine.


Short-term use of laxatives is generally safe except in cases of appendicitis, fecal impaction, or intestinal obstruction. Lactulose is composed of two sugar molecules, galactose and fructose, and should not be administered to patients who require a low-galactose diet.

Chronic use of laxatives may result in fluid and electrolyte imbalances, steatorrhea, osteomalacia, diarrhea, cathartic colon, and liver disease. Excessive intake of mineral oil may cause impaired absorption of oil soluble vitamins, particularly A and D. Excessive use of magnesium salts may cause hypermanesemia.

Lactulose and magnesium sulfate are pregnancy category B. Casanthranol, cascara sagrada, danthron, docusate sodium, docusate calcium, docusate potassium, mineral oil, and senna are category C. Casanthranol, cascara sagrada, and danthron are excreted in breast milk, resulting in a potential increased incidence of diarrhea in the nursing infant.


Mineral oil and docusate should not be used in combination. Docusate is an emulsifying agent that will increase the absorption of mineral oil.

Bisacodyl tablets are enteric coated, and so should not be used in combination with antacids. The antacids will cause premature rupture of the enteric coating.

Recommended dosage

The consumer is advised to see specific resources for each product.



"Constipation, Laxatives and Dietary Fiber." HealthTips (April 1993): 9.

"Overuse Hazardous: Laxatives Rarely Needed." FDA Consumer (April 1991): 33.


National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3570. .


"Effectiveness of Laxatives in Adults." Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, University of York. [cited June 2003] .

"Laxatives (Oral)." Medline Plus Drug Information. [cited June 2003] .

Samuel D. Uretsky, PharmD

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