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A Guide to Using Stool Softeners

The National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse has estimated that over 4 million Americans suffer from constipation every year. Constipation is characterized by having infrequent bowel movements or difficulty with having a bowel movement.A Guide to Using Stool Softeners

Many people use supplements and laxatives to treat their constipation, but stool softeners are gentler and can be just as effective. They work by forcing the body to channel water to the large intestines. The added moisture transfers into the stool making it soft and swollen. This loosened feces will be easier to propagate through the colon and expel.

Because they are gentler than other treatments, bowel movements will be less intense than other laxatives. They will also come on more gradually.

Step-by-Step Guide

Follow these steps to diagnose constipation and using a stool softener for self-treatment.


Constipation is defined by the following symptoms. If one or more are present, the person is considered constipated.

  • Have fewer than 3 bowel movements in a week
  • Difficulty or pain when passing a bowel movement
  • Stool is small or dry

A Guide to Using Stool SoftenersStep #1

Eight 8oz glasses of fluids should be consumed before taking a stool softener, preferably water or 100% juice. It is better to drink these fluids throughout the day instead of all at once. Drinking 8 ounces of prune juice can help produce a stronger laxative effect, but is not necessary.

Step #2

Plenty of fiber-rich foods should be eaten before taking a laxative, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. This will add bulk and moisturize the stool so it will pass with greater ease.

Step #3

The stool softener should be taken in the evening before bedtime. For the proper dosage, the laxative’s instructions should be closely followed.

Step #4

Steps #1 through #3 should be continued every day until a bowel movement is produced, but no longer one week. A doctor should be consulted if no movement is produced after a week of self-treatment.

MedlinePlus reports that a typical stool softener will begin working within three days, but this can vary depending on the person.

A Guide to Using Stool SoftenersWarning

  • If a stool softener cannot produce a bowel movement after a week of use or the waste is still dry, a doctor should be consulted.
  • Stool softeners should not be used in conjunction with over-the-counter medicines, unless approved by a doctor.
  • Stool softeners should only be used occasionally. They should never be used longer than a week, unless approved by a doctor.
  • Children under six years of age should not use stool softeners.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take stool softeners, unless approved by a doctor.
  • Stool softeners can cause menstrual cramps, sore throat, or nausea. If these symptoms become severe, the person should stop taking the softener. If the symptoms persist, a doctor should be consulted.
  • A person should stop taking a stool softener if they develop hives, vomiting, fever, pain in the abdomen, or difficulty when breathing and swallowing. These can be symptoms of an allergy to the stool softener. A doctor should be consulted if any allergic symptoms appear.

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*The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the Editor. Results may vary from person to person and cannot be guaranteed.

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