Constipation Q&A

Some people have a bowel movement once or twice a day; others do so less frequently. If you have fewer bowel movements than is usual for you or if your faeces are small and hard, you are constipated. The cause is often a lack of fluid or fibre-rich foods in the diet. If constipation occurs suddenly or persists despite a change in your diet, consult your doctor.

  • How long have you suffered from constipation?

    • For a few weeks or less

      Do you have pain in your rectum or anus when you move your bowels?

      • Pain
        • Possible cause Pain on defecation can cause or worsen constipation. Haemorrhoids or anal fissure may be the cause of your symptoms.

          Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

      • No pain

        Do you have intermittent bouts of cramping pain in the lower abdomen?

        • Cramping pain
          • Possible cause Irritable bowel syndrome is a possible cause, especially if your constipation alternates with bouts of diarrhoea. However, other causes, such as colorectal cancer, may need to be ruled out.

            Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

        • No cramping pain

          Do you have any of the following symptoms?

          • Tiredness
            • Possible cause Hypothyroidism is a possible cause.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • Increased dryness or roughness of the skin
            • Possible cause Hypothyroidism is a possible cause.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • Feeling the cold more than you used to
            • Possible cause Hypothyroidism is a possible cause.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • Unexplained weight gain
            • Possible cause Hypothyroidism is a possible cause.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • Generalized hair thinning
            • Possible cause Hypothyroidism is a possible cause.

              Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

          • None of the above

            Are you currently taking any medications, complementary remedies, or recreational drugs?

            • Yes
              • Possible cause Your symptoms may be a side effect of the medication, remedy, or recreational drug.

                Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor. Continue to take prescribed medication unless advised to stop by your doctor but stop taking any other medications, complementary remedies, or recreational drugs.

            • No

              Do any of the following apply?

              • You are pregnant
              • You have been drinking less fluid than usual
                • Possible cause Lack of fluid in the bowel as a result of an inadequate fluid intake or excessive fluid loss can lead to constipation.

                  Self-help Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially if the weather is hot. Consult your doctor if your symptoms have not improved within 2 weeks.

              • You have changed your diet
                • Possible cause A change in your regular diet, especially if you are travelling, can make you constipated.

                  Self-help Try following the advice for preventing constipation. Consult your doctor if your symptoms have not improved within 2 weeks.

              • None of the above
                • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your constipation from this chart, make an appointment to see your doctor.

    • For several months or years

      Does either of the following apply?

      • You regularly ignore the urge to move your bowels
        • Possible cause Your bowel reflexes may have become sluggish as a result of being constantly resisted.

          Self-help Try following the advice for preventing constipation. Consult your doctor if your symptoms have not improved within 2 weeks.

      • You regularly use stimulant laxatives
        • Possible cause Regular use of stimulant laxatives can seriously disrupt the normal functioning of the bowels.

          Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

      • Neither
        • Possible cause Your constipation could be due to a lack of fibre or fluid in your diet. Lack of exercise may also be a factor if you are not physically active (see Constipation).

          Self-help Try following the advice for preventing constipation. Consult your doctor if your symptoms have not improved within 2 weeks.

Warning

Blood in the faeces

Blood can appear in the faeces as red streaks or in larger amounts. It can also make the stools look black. Small amounts of blood in the faeces are usually caused by minor anal problems, such as haemorrhoids, but you should always consult your doctor if you notice blood in the faeces because it is vital that other causes, such as colorectal cancer, are ruled out.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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