Introduction 

Constipation is a common condition that affects people of all ages. It can mean that you're not passing stools regularly or you're unable to completely empty your bowel.

Constipation can also cause your stools to be hard and lumpy, as well as unusually large or small.

The severity of constipation varies from person to person. Many people only experience constipation for a short time, but for others, constipation can be a long-term (chronic) condition that causes significant pain and discomfort and affects quality of life.

Read more about the symptoms of constipation.

What causes constipation?

It's often difficult to identify the exact cause of constipation. However, there are a number of things that contribute to the condition, including:

  • not eating enough fibre, such as fruit, vegetables and cereals
  • a change in your routine or lifestyle, such as a change in your eating habits
  • ignoring the urge to pass stools
  • side effects of certain medications
  • not drinking enough fluids
  • anxiety or depression

In children, poor diet, fear about using the toilet and problems toilet training can all lead to constipation.

Read more about the causes of constipation.

Who is affected

Constipation can occur in babies, children and adults. It's estimated that around one in every seven adults and up to one in every three children in the UK has constipation at any one time.

The condition affects twice as many women as men and is also more common in older adults and during pregnancy.

Should I see my GP?

You may be able to treat constipation yourself by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle (see below). If these changes do not help and the problem continues, see your GP.

You should also speak to your GP if you suspect your child might be constipated.

Read more about diagnosing constipation.

How constipation is treated

In many cases, diet and lifestyle changes are recommended as the first treatment for constipation.

These include gradually increasing your daily intake of fibre, making sure you drink plenty of fluids, and trying to get more exercise.

If these aren't effective, your GP may prescribe an oral laxative medication that can help you empty your bowels.

Treatment for constipation is effective, although in some cases it can take several months before a regular bowel pattern is re-established.

Read more about treating constipation.

Preventing constipation

Making the diet and lifestyle changes mentioned above can also help reduce your risk of developing constipation in the first place.

It may also help to give yourself enough time and privacy to pass stools comfortably and you should try not to ignore the urge to go to the toilet.

Read more about preventing constipation.

Complications

For most people constipation rarely causes any complications, but people with long-term constipation can develop:

Read more about complications of constipation.




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Page last reviewed: 08/01/2014

Next review due: 08/01/2016