Constipation Symptoms

The Basics of Constipation

Constipation is one of those topics few like to talk about. If you’ve suffered from this problem, though, you know it can be both painful and frustrating. Almost everyone gets constipated at some time during his or her life. It affects approximately 2% of the population in the U.S. Women and the elderly are more commonly affected. Though not usually serious, constipation can be a concern.

What Is Constipation?
Constipation occurs when bowel movements become difficult or less frequent. The normal length of time between bowel movements ranges widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements three times a day; others, only one or two times a week. Going longer than three days without a bowel movement is too long. After three days, the stool or feces become harder and more difficult to pass.
You are considered constipated if you have two or more of the following for at least 3 months:

  • Straining during a bowel movement more than 25% of the time
  • Hard stools more than 25% of the time
  • Incomplete evacuation more than 25% of the time
  • Two or fewer bowel movements in a week

What Causes Constipation?
Constipation is usually caused by a disorder of bowel function rather than a structural problem. Common causes of constipation include:

  • Inadequate water intake
  • Inadequate fiber in the diet
  • A disruption of regular diet or routine; traveling
  • Inadequate activity or exercise or immobility
  • Eating large amounts of dairy products
  • Stress
  • Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement, which is sometimes the result of pain from hemorrhoids
  • Overuse of laxatives (stool softeners) which, over time, weaken the bowel muscles
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
  • Antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
  • Medicines (especially strong pain medicines, such as narcotics, antidepressants, or iron pills)
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Pregnancy
  • Colon Cancer

How Can I Prevent Constipation?
There are several things you can do to prevent constipation. Among them:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fiber. Good sources of fiber are fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereal (especially bran). Fiber and water help the colon pass stool.
  • Drink 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of water and other fluids a day (unless fluid restricted for another medical condition). Liquids that contain caffeine, such as coffee and soft drinks, seem to have a dehydrating effect and may need to be avoided until your bowel habits return to normal. Some people may need to avoid milk, as dairy products may be constipating for them.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Move your bowels when you feel the urge.

What Should I Do If I Am Constipated?
If you are constipated, try the following:

  • Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day (unless fluid restricted).
  • Try warm liquids, especially in the morning.
  • Eat prunes and/or bran cereal.
  • If needed, use a very mild stool softener. (See our Liquid Fiber)

Reviewed By Andrew Seibert, MD for
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Ways to treat Diarrhea

Usually, a bout of diarrhea will last only a few days. This common digestive health problem usually goes away on its own, and recovery occurs without administering any remedies. “However, severe diarrhea, diarrhea that lasts more than a few days, or prolonged episodes of diarrhea are reasons to see a doctor, as they could indicate something more serious,” says Stephen Bickston, MD, AGAF, professor of internal medicine and director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Center in Richmond, Va. It’s also important to remember that diarrhea treatments for adults, especially medication, may not be the same for children with diarrhea, so you should check with your pediatrician first.

Treatment for Diarrhea: Preventing Dehydration
The major concern with diarrhea is dehydration. Your body can lose a lot of fluids and salts when you have very loose, watery stools, and it is important to replenish them. Here’s how:

  • Select sports drinks. “Sports drinks make sense and are available in a wide variety of flavors,” Dr. Bickston says. What makes them work is their sugar and salt contents, both of which cause water to be absorbed, and even more so when taken together. People can make their own sports drinks by adding a teaspoon of salt to a quart of apple juice, Bickston says. “That little amount of salt will help the body absorb fluids but isn’t enough to make the apple juice taste bad.” Bickston recommends the drinks be at room temperature because warm sits better than cold.
  • Sip other good fluid options. Some other good choices for treating diarrhea include clear broth and water (unless you are traveling out of the country).
  • Avoid drinks that can worsen symptoms. Caffeinated, alcoholic, and sugary drinks can worsen dehydration. Milk and other dairy products can exacerbate the problem for some people, who may become lactose-intolerant for a short time after getting diarrhea.

Treatment for Diarrhea: A Bland Diet

When dealing with a brief bout of diarrhea, you want to watch your diet and keep it bland. You may not want to eat anything but clear liquids for the first 24 hours. Then, you can slowly add bland foods to your diet. These include bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast — otherwise known as the BRAT diet. Crackers and mashed potatoes (minus the butter) are also safe, bland foods.

If your diarrhea is more prolonged, you might want to investigate the foods you are eating, as some can irritate your bowel and make diarrhea worse. These include foods that are high in fiber (bran, whole grains, brown rice) and greasy or excessively sweet foods. Foods that are sweetened with sorbitol can aggravate diarrhea, Bickston says. If loose stools have become a problem, then you may want to avoid these foods.

If certain foods are causing your diarrhea, try the elimination diet. Cut the suspected food from your diet until you are sure it is or is not the culprit. If it’s not the problem, feel free to return that food to your diet. “The difficulty I see in a lot of patients is that they don’t put things back into their diet even if they’re not causing a problem, and now they’ve painted themselves into a dietary corner,” Bickston says. “All they’re eating is mashed potatoes and rice.”

Treatment for Diarrhea: Pharmaceutical Options

In most cases, over-the-counter medications can be helpful in stopping an occasional bout of diarrhea — especially with traveler’s diarrhea (ingesting contaminated food or water while abroad). Choices you can buy at your pharmacy include loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate). “These are reasonable to use on occasion and have the great advantage of not requiring a doctor’s prescription,” Bickston says. However, they should not be used for more than two days.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you take pharmaceutical remedies for traveler’s diarrhea, they may make you feel better sooner, but they could keep any bacteria, parasites, or viruses in your system longer. Usually, diarrhea will go away in a few days on its own.

Be sure to replace any fluids and salts that you lose when you have diarrhea. Drink plenty of clear fluids and eat bland foods to get back to normal quickly. If your diarrhea persists, talk to your doctor.

By Beth Orenstein for|Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Diarrhea is a condition that leads to frequent, loose or watery stools. Those with it don’t absorb nutrients or water properly. If it lasts too long, diarrhea sufferers can get dehydrated or have electrolyte problems.

In most cases of sudden diarrhea the right treatment is simply waiting it out. The body is almost always reacting to an infection or ingestion of something bad by ridding itself of toxins or bacteria and once it is finished, bowl movements will return to normal. When diarrhea lasts more than a couple of days or comes on frequently, it might be a bigger problem and will need to be treated by a healthcare provider.

Specific causes of diarrhea have specific treatments. Use these general treatment steps when the cause of diarrhea isn’t known or can’t be treated itself.
Time Required: 24 to 72 hours
Here’s How:

  1. Avoid dehydration:
    Drink lots of clear fluid — no alcohol or caffeine. Milk will usually prolong diarrhea, but it might help provide nutrients for folks with very mild cases. For moderate to severe cases, use an electrolyte solution like Gatorade or Pedialyte.
  2. Eat probiotic yogurt.
    These active cultures can ease the symptoms of some types of diarrhea and shorten their duration.
  3. Try the BRAT diet:
    bananas, rice, apples or applesauce, and dry toast. This diet is often suggested for kids, but adults can eat it as well. It’s not necessary to restrict kids or adults to this diet, but adding these foods may help shorten episodes of diarrhea.
  4. Avoid diarrhea medications,
    unless the doctor tells you to take them. The function of diarrhea is to rid the body of bad bugs. Often the only way to get better is to suffer through the loose stools.
  5. The following cases require seeking emergency treatment:
    unless the doctor tells you to take them. The function of diarrhea is to rid the body of bad bugs. Often the only way to get better is to suffer through the loose stools.

    • Vomiting or diarrhea in a newborn under 3 months (call as soon as it starts)
    • Kids older than 3 months vomiting for more than 12 hours
    • Diarrhea lasting more than 3 days
    • Bloody, black, or oily looking stools
    • Abdominal pain that doesn’t get better with a bowel movement
    • Dehydration symptoms including dizziness, weakness or muscle cramps
    • Fever, along with diarrhea, of more than 101 in adults or 100.4 in kids
    • Recent travel outside the country (Traveler’s Diarrhea)
    • People with whom you’ve eaten complaining of diarrhea
    • Diarrhea after starting a new medication
  6. Get plenty of rest.

“Travelers’ Diarrhea.” 15 Feb 2008. Centers for Disease Control. CDC. 12 Mar 2008
“Diarrhea.” 20 Feb 2008. Medline Plus. USNLM/NIH. 12 Mar 2008 “Diarrhea.” Mar 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. NIDDK. 23 Mar 2008

By Rod Brouhard for
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