Constipation can be uncomfortable & distracting. Discover how to identify constipation & the lifestyle changes that can help you manage the discomfort 

It's estimated that 14 percent of the world's population suffer from chronic constipation, which tends to affect women more often than men. Constipation can feel very uncomfortable, but, fortunately, it's often easy to manage.

What is constipation?

A person with a healthy gut will usually pass well-formed stools once per day or at least on alternate days, with at least three stools a week. However, there is a large range for what's still considered 'normal' bowel habits, from passing stool two to three times a day to two to three times a week. It's a change from your normal pattern that may indicate constipation. Constipation can be defined as:

• Less frequent passage of stools than normal

• Passage of harder, smaller stools than normal

• The feeling of incomplete passage of stools

• Straining to produce stools

Constipation can sometimes be accompanied by abdominal pain, bloating and feeling sick.

Long-term (or chronic) constipation is when you have symptoms for an extended period, either uninterrupted or on and off. Constipation may be considered chronic if you’ve experienced two or more of the symptoms of constipation for the last three months. If chronic constipation is making it difficult for you to carry out daily tasks or is causing you to miss out on recreational activities, speak to your GP. 

What are the causes of constipation?

Constipation can often have no clear cause. However, there are certain factors that can contribute towards symptoms of constipation.

Vegetables and fruit contain lots of fibre that goes undigested in the intestines. This helps to soften the stools and move them more easily through the bowels. If your diet lacks fibre, this may be a factor in causing your constipation.

Another common cause of constipation is dehydration. The intestines absorb water from stools as they go through the bowel. If you are dehydrated, more water is absorbed than usual to help with the normal functioning of your body. This leaves stools hard, making passing them more difficult and sometimes painful.

Certain medicines, such as codeine, can cause constipation. Ask your pharmacist for advice if you think that a medicine you're taking is causing constipation.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is also a common cause of constipation. In IBS, your symptoms can switch between constipation and diarrhoea. You should visit your GP if you think you might have IBS.

What can I do to treat constipation?

The symptoms of constipation can usually be treated with some simple lifestyle changes:

• Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Choose wholemeal bread and pasta over refined varieties

• Drink lots of fluids. Six to eight cups of water a day is a good target for most people. It's important to remember you may need to drink more on hot days or if you sweat during exercise

• Avoid alcohol as this makes dehydration worse

• Get regular exercise, which can help to get your bowel moving

Are there any medicines for constipation?

If you still find it difficult to pass stools, consider using laxatives. There are different types of laxatives available:

• Osmotic (water-retaining) laxatives. These trap water in the bowel, producing softer stools

• Bulk-forming laxatives which are fibre supplements. Unprocessed bran is a good alternative and can be sprinkled over yoghurt, soups and cereals

• Stimulant laxatives like glycerol and senna help increase movement in the intestines. These should only be used if lifestyle measures to relieve constipation and other laxatives have been ineffective. 

When using laxatives, make sure that you take the manufacturer's recommended dose. Your pharmacist will also be able to guide you. Laxatives should only be used as a short-term solution, unless your doctor advises you otherwise.

DulcoEase 100mg Capsules – 60 Soft Gel Capsules

Work to provide relief when bowel movements are painful or difficult by helping hard, dry stools soak up natural fluids. Can be used for constipation, piles or anal fissure. Contains docusate sodium, always read the label.

Boots Good Gut Daily Fibre Sachets

Designed to give you a helping hand to create a healthy gut environment. The expert blend provides a low calorie source of extra fibre in a refreshing drink with a tropical flavour. Also contains calcium which contributes to the normal function of digestive enzymes. 

When should you be worried about constipation?

If you find that you're still getting symptoms of constipation despite having a high intake of fibre and water, or taking laxatives, make an appointment with your GP. If you're regularly constipated and your constipation lasts for a long time, it is also advisable that you visit your doctor.

If you notice any other symptoms like blood with stools, black stools, loss of appetite, or unexplained weight loss, speak to your GP as soon as possible.

Next steps

• Eat more fibre, drink more water and exercise

• Ask your pharmacist for advice on laxatives

• Visit your GP if your symptoms don't improve or if you have persistent constipation