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Teen Version

What is constipation?

Constipation means that bowel movements are difficult or painful to pass and less frequent than usual.

With constipation, you may feel a desperate urge to have a bowel movement (BM), have discomfort in the anal area, and strain, but be unable to pass a BM after straining and pushing for more than 10 minutes.

Going 3 or more days without a BM can be considered constipation, even though this may cause no pain in some people and even be normal for a few.

Large or hard BMs unaccompanied by any of the conditions just described are usually normal variations in BMs. Some normal people have hard BMs daily without any pain.

What is the cause?

Constipation is often due to a diet that does not include enough fiber. Drinking or eating too many milk products can cause constipation. It's also caused by repeatedly waiting too long to go to the bathroom.

How long will it last?

Changes in the diet usually relieve constipation. After you are better, be sure to stay on a nonconstipating diet so that it doesn't happen again.

Sometimes the trauma to the anal canal during constipation causes an anal fissure (a small tear). This is confirmed by finding small amounts of bright red blood on the toilet tissue or the stool surface.

How can I take care of myself?

Diet treatment

  • Eat fruits or vegetables at least 3 times a day. Some examples are prunes, figs, dates, raisins, peaches, pears, apricots, beans, peas, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage.
  • Increase bran. Bran is an excellent natural stool softener because it has a high fiber content. Make sure that your daily diet includes a source of bran, such as one of the new "natural" cereals, unmilled bran, bran flakes, bran muffins, shredded wheat, graham crackers, oatmeal, high-fiber cookies, brown rice, or whole wheat bread. Popcorn is one of the best high-fiber foods.
  • Eat fewer constipating foods, such as cow's milk, ice cream, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Increase the amount of water you drink.

Stool softeners

If a change in diet doesn't relieve your constipation, take a stool softener with dinner every night for 1 week. Stool softeners (unlike laxatives) are not habit-forming. They work 8 to 12 hours after they are taken. Examples of stool softeners that you can buy at your drugstore without a prescription are, Haley's M-O (1 tablespoon), Metamucil or Citrucel (1 tablespoon), and mineral oil (1 tablespoon).

If you have acute rectal pain and need immediate relief, try one or more glycerin suppositories.

Common mistakes in treating constipation

Don't use any enemas without your health care provider's advice. These can cause irritation of the anus if used excessively. Do not use strong oral laxatives without asking your health care provider because they can cause cramps and become habit-forming.

When should I call my health care provider?


  • You develop severe rectal or abdominal pain.

Call during office hours if:

  • You do not have a bowel movement after 3 days on the nonconstipating diet.
  • You have other concerns or questions.
Written by B.D. Schmitt, M.D., author of "Your Child's Health," Bantam Books.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-07-31
Last reviewed: 2006-03-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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