Constipation: causes and symptoms

Constipation refers to abnormally infrequent bowel motions and/or pain when passing small, hard stools. A bowel motion every day is not always necessary. People’s bowel habits differ, and some people have a bowel motion only every second or third day — or longer.

Constipation is not the same as irregular bowel habits — it is when you have to strain to pass a bowel motion, which is usually hard. Haemorrhoids may indicate constipation. You may have a headache, foul breath, furred tongue, loss of appetite, flatulence, irritability, stomach cramps, bloating, insomnia and a general feeling of ill health. Occasionally, some people complaining of diarrhoea may in fact have ‘overflow’ diarrhoea as a result of constipation.

What can you do to help relieve constipation?

Diet is an important factor in constipation. A diet high in fibre (fruit, vegetables and grain products) is strongly recommended. This should be tried before any laxative is used. When there is sufficient fibre in the diet the stools will float. Exercise helps prevent constipation, and you should try to drink at least 6 glasses of water each day.

Laxatives should not be needed long-term under normal circumstances. Overuse of laxatives may cause electrolyte imbalances, which can be dangerous.

When should you seek medical advice?

You should seek medical advice if:

  • constipation is accompanied by vomiting;
  • there has been sudden weight loss;
  • bowel motions are very dark and tarry looking, or contain blood;
  • the constipation has been recurrent, persistent or is worsening;
  • there is abdominal pain or bloating;
  • you are having to use large amounts of laxatives;
  • constipation alternates with diarrhoea;
  • you have a fever; or
  • constipation has continued longer than 7 days.

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