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What are the Most Common Laxative Side Effects?

By Patti Kate
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Common laxative side effects may include laxative dependency, as over usage can alter the foundation and assembly of the small intestine. Vitamin deficiencies and dehydration can also be common side effects of laxatives. Kidney stones can occur with laxative abuse as well as kidney malfunction. Another potential side effect may include interaction with other medications, making certain drugs lose their effect or potency.

Laxative side effects such as becoming severely dehydrated, and as a result deleting the body's essential supply of electrolytes, can be serious. Irregular rhythm of the heart has been known to occur in individuals with low potassium and magnesium levels. When laxatives are abused, it may cause a long-term effect of watery stools and diarrhea. These can become life threatening if left unchecked.

One of the more common laxative side effects is known as a rebound effect. When laxatives are used on a regular basis, the intestinal tract and small bowel may become stagnant and inactive. This in turn can cause chronic constipation, often more severe than the symptoms that emerged at the original onset.

Bloating of the stomach and intestines can be another common side effect of laxatives associated with moderate to excessive use. Edema, also known as swelling, may be caused by the excessive amount of fluid that is retained within the stomach or gastrointestinal (GI) tract. GI swelling is often a symptom of excessive laxative use, and these symptoms can interchange with the contrasting symptoms of diarrhea.

Moderate cramping is often a common laxative side effect, especially from those made with harsh ingredients. Some laxatives are made to be gentle and claim to cause minimal to no cramping. In laxatives that incorporate high amounts of fiber, these products may increase intestinal cramps in certain individuals.

Other less common laxative side effects are blood in the stool, leading to iron deficiencies or possible anemia. Anemia causes the body to be deficient in red blood cells. Red blood cells are essential in distributing life sustaining oxygen from the lungs to crucial areas of the body, including body tissue structures.

In cases of long-term abuse of laxatives, more serious side effects can potentially occur. When individuals abuse the use of laxatives for several years, there may be a direct correlation between that abuse and the incidence of colon cancer. While this factor is speculative among medical experts, the risk may certainly be present. Using laxatives for weight loss is a common form of laxative abuse and is considered to be a risk for other complications.

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Discussion Comments
By anon344705 — On Aug 11, 2013

Ever since my daughter was switched to baby food (after 1 year of age), she has been constipated. We use prune juice and fiber rich dirt, and she has to take a laxative every day. Otherwise, she will get stopped up for weeks. She is now 2.5 and still having the same problems.

By honeybees — On Jan 14, 2012

I think one of the most frustrating things when it comes to being a parent of a toddler is not knowing when they are constipated.

I try to monitor this because I know how important it is to have a bowel movement on a regular basis.

This is something that kids don't even think about and aren't even aware there is a problem until they start having bad stomach cramps.

The effects of children's constipation is no different than adults, but they might not know what is going on, or how to talk about it.

I tell my son to always let me know when he has had a bowel movement. If he starts complaining of his stomach hurting, the first thing I ask him is when was the last time he went to the bathroom.

By sunshined — On Jan 13, 2012

When I had my appendix removed, I was in the hospital for a week. It seemed like it took a long time for my system to be regular again.

After I got home from the hospital, I began taking a laxative to help with this. Knowing that one side effect of laxatives is dehydration, I also began using a drink that had electrolytes in it.

As long as I drank plenty of water and made sure to replenish the electrolytes, I didn't have any complications. Once things got back to normal, I discontinued the electrolyte drink but still try to drink a lot of water.

I think that by keeping myself hydrated on a regular basis, this goes a long way towards not being constipated.

By golf07 — On Jan 12, 2012

I have a natural herbal supplement that I keep on hand when I need some help with constipation. On the label it clearly states this should not be taken on a regular basis, but is for occasional use only.

I usually have the most trouble with constipation when I travel. Something about being off schedule and eating different foods really throws my system out of balance.

Because this always happens, I usually take this supplement with me and take some every night before bed. If I do this every night I am gone, it usually prevents the constipation from happening.

There is nothing worse than being away from home and being constipated and feeling miserable. Fortunately this has always worked for me and I have not had to rely on something like constipation suppositories.

As long as I take this once in awhile, I have not noticed any side effects other than working the way it is supposed to.

By LisaLou — On Jan 12, 2012

One of my friends had a scary situation with a laxative. She was having problems with constipation and had some chocolate flavored laxative in the house.

Her toddler somehow climbed up on the counter and thought these looked like regular candy bars. When she found him, he had already eaten over half of the chocolate laxatives in the package.

She called her doctor right away and he told her to watch her boy carefully. At least she knew she would hot have a constipated toddler for a few days.

The only side effects he had were loose stools and a little bit of stomach cramping. There are many forms of laxatives available, and if I had small kids in the house, I don't think I would keep the chocolate ones around. They look too much like candy and could have some bad side effects.

By Perdido — On Jan 11, 2012

I had a lot of trouble with my bowel movements as a teenager. I used laxatives when I became constipated, and this caused me to have diarrhea, which I also used medication to treat, so I became constipated again. It was a vicious, uncomfortable cycle.

I finally decided that I preferred constipation over diarrhea, so I quit taking laxatives and tried to treat it by drinking a ton of water and eating granola bars enriched with fiber. I also got a water soluble fiber powder, and I mixed it with liquid and drank a glass of it each morning.

After a few days, it worked. I felt like I had discovered the cure for constipation, and I was elated!

By Oceana — On Jan 10, 2012

I had a friend with an eating disorder who abused laxatives. She had become dependent on them for two reasons.

For one, she had heard that they can make you lose weight. Unfortunately, this is mostly water weight after awhile, so you become dehydrated and malnourished as you flush your nutrients out with the feces.

The other reason was that she simply did not eat enough fiber to make her go on her own. She became very ill, because the laxative flushed out whatever potassium she did have, and she ended up in the hospital to get replenished intravenously with electrolytes.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 09, 2012

@wavy58 – In my opinion, one of the worst constipation side effects is the need to use a laxative. They cause me lots of pain, as well.

I once used a laxative that came in liquid form. I had to drink a dose, followed by a large glass of water. It tasted lemony and really salty.

I hadn't had a bowel movement in four days, so I had a lot of waste stored up inside of me. Within five hours, I started hearing strange gurgling noises in my intestines. I had to rush to the toilet.

That laxative cleared out everything inside of me and more. I must have gone to the bathroom eight times that night, and toward the end, it was just brown water. I had a lot of cramping as stuff shifted around, and it was a discomfort I hope I never have to experience again.

By wavy58 — On Jan 08, 2012

I used to get constipated often, and I refused to use laxatives unless I had gone at least five days without having a bowel movement. This kept me from becoming dependent on them, but by the time I did use one, I was bloated and very uncomfortable.

I hated laxatives, because no matter how gentle they promised to be, it seemed they always caused me to get terrible cramps. The cramps were sometimes so bad that they made me vomit, and this seemed worse than being constipated.

I now eat a lot of whole grains and natural foods, and I have not had to use a laxative in over a year. It is such a relief to be able to go without the aid of medication.

By ysmina — On Jan 08, 2012

@turkay1-- I don't think so. If you change to a brand with a different ingredient, it might work well at first like Senna did. But pretty soon, the same thing is going to happen and you will become addicted to them.

This is one of the reasons I quit using laxatives. The other reason was that I was losing too much fluid which started effecting my concentration. Apparently laxatives use up huge amounts of water because that's how it helps initiate a bowel movement. It moves water to the intestines to soften and move stool out. I wasn't drinking enough water in the first place so laxatives were making me even more dehydrated. I felt really tired, I would get dizzy and could not concentrate because of it.

I finally quit laxatives when I realized what was happening and sought help from my doctor and a dietitian. I ate all fiber rich foods until my system started working normally again. It took some time but it was worth it.

By candyquilt — On Jan 07, 2012

I've been using senna laxatives and the side effect I'm experiencing is delayed effectiveness. It's like the more I use the laxative, the longer it takes for it to work. In the beginning, I would definitely see results in like a half day. Then, it became a day, and now it takes a day and a half. I feel like it's going to stop working entirely pretty soon.

I guess laxatives are kind of like antibiotics. The more you use and abuse them, the less effective they are. I'm planning to stop using it completely but I wonder what will happen then. Will my system really come to a halt because I've become so dependent on this laxative? What if I change to a different brand? Do you think that might help with the side effects?

By bear78 — On Jan 07, 2012

I don't use laxatives regularly, maybe several times a month. Whenever I do use them though, I get terrible cramping, gas and diarrhea. I wouldn't resort to a laxative if I didn't have to but if I eat unhealthy for even one day, my digestive system slows down and I can't get a bowel movement until I take a laxative.

I take the recommended dose but I always get these side effects. The diarrhea is what worries me most because it can be excessive. In fact, I only take laxatives on the weekends now because I know I will have to rush to the bathroom many times. Dehydration because of the diarrhea is also an issue. I try and keep electrolyte water stocked up so I can re-replenish myself.

By jennythelib — On Jan 06, 2012

@ElizaBennett - You're right, but there are certain situations when a laxative may be necessary. My mother was prescribed a laxative after a surgery she had when she was told she should not strain to use the toilet.

The article seems to be talking mostly about stimulant laxatives. There are other options, including stool softeners, that might be more gentle. I think what my mother used was actually pharmaceutical-grade mineral oil, which is a lubricant laxative. While a stimulant laxative works by causing the walls of the bowel to contract (and you can see why that might be dicey sometimes!), mineral oil sort of coats the contents of your digestive tract so they can slide out more easily.

By ElizaBennett — On Jan 05, 2012

It seems to me that the success of laxatives on the market is based largely on a marketing success. Not everyone has a bowel movement every day, but decades ago, drug companies convinced Americans this was the only "normal" way.

If you do get constipated, your diet is probably to blame. People who eat fruit and other sources of fiber and drink plenty of water just don't usually get constipated! Getting exercise can also help with constipation.

And it sounds weird, but you can also try squatting when you "go." It's a much more natural position; makes it easier to go, with less straining, and reduces the risk of hemorrhoids.

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