Drug Facts: laxatives

What is a laxative?

“A laxative is any substance that promotes bowel movements.”  There are a variety of prescription and nonprescription substances that function as laxatives. Commonly available OTC laxatives include Alophen™, Dulcolax™, Ex-Lax™, and MiraLax™. 

How, why, and how often are laxatives abused?

There are two primary types of laxative abuse, although not all abuse will fit into one of the two categories. First, there is habitual laxative abuse, which is found primarily in the elderly, as well as in some middle-aged individuals. Second, and of interest to the researchers at this site, there is surreptitious laxative abuse, which is commonly found in individuals with eating disorders,  including anorexia, bulimia, and some binge-eating disorders. Laxative abuse is also found in patients who lack proper fiber and water consumption. 

It can be surmised from this information that laxative abuse among adolescents is often associated with various eating disorders. While data recording precise amounts of laxative abuse is very difficult to locate, given the surreptitious nature of the abuse, a study completed in 1988 found that 3.5% of non-clinical adolescents had used laxatives as a means to control weight. However, of that group of adolescents, 45% did not have a co-occurring eating disorder, suggesting that laxative abuse has the potential to be very difficult to diagnose. 

What problems can arise from laxative abuse?

Long-term use of laxatives can cause constipation, damage to the muscular function of the bowels, a loss of the body’s electrolytes,  kidney stones, renal failure,  dehydration, and social complications. 

What else should I know about laxatives?

Don’t use laxatives unless they are suggested by your healthcare provider.  If you or an adolescent under your care has questions about frequency of bowel movements, please consult a medical professional before administering medication on your own. If you are currently using laxatives, it is better to taper off (slowly decrease use) rather than to stop outright. 

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