Many of us experience constipation or difficulty moving our bowels at some point in life. Constipation may be very uncomfortable, which warrants seeking some relief through medication. However, you may be faced with deciding whether to use a stool softener or a laxative. Before you decide on what you think is the best alternative, it is important to understand the difference between the two.
Understanding the Purpose of a Stool Softener vs. all Laxatives
A laxative defines any medicine that facilitates a bowel movement which includes a broad range designed to treat varying levels of severity. A stool softener is a mild (OTC) over-the-counter laxative used to soften the stool for easier passage and less strain. Its use is recommended for temporary, less chronic constipation. Stool softeners work naturally with the body and are better tolerated with fewer side effects. Stronger laxatives such as stimulant laxatives are more appropriate for more severe symptoms. Unlike stool softeners which merely add moisture to the stool to allow for easier movement, stimulant laxatives treat more acute and chronic constipation by directly stimulating nerves in the large intestine. They work faster to bring relief yet can cause side effects such as dehydration, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping.
Identify Your Symptoms First
It’s important to understand the symptoms and severity of your constipation before choosing a particular laxative. If you are suffering from symptoms such as abdominal bloating, rectal pain, and a frequency of fewer than three bowel movements per week, you may be a candidate for a stronger laxative. However, if you are experiencing temporary difficulty passing stool due to recent surgery, hemorrhoids, or other sensitivities, you may be better suited to taking stool softeners.
Your Diet and Doctor’s Advice
Before choosing a laxative, it is always important to practice some common measures before resorting to laxatives.
- Stay hydrated during the day
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other fiber to promote a healthy colon.
- If an improvement in your diet is not relieving your symptoms, consult your physician.
- If you have been recommended to use a laxative, always follow the doctor’s instructions, or for over-the-counter medications, carefully read dosing directions.
- Whether taking stronger laxatives or milder ones such as stool softeners, either should not be taken long term unless approved by your physician.
Now that you are better acquainted with stool softeners vs. laxatives, you will understand that all laxatives are not created equal, thus you can make an informed choice. The best medicine, of course, is eating a healthy diet, but if you must choose a laxative, consider your symptoms, research products, and consult with a medical professional.