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Constipation

What Is Constipation?

Someone might have constipation if they:

  • have fewer than three bowel movements (BMs) in a week
  • have trouble having a bowel movement
  • have stool (poop) that's hard, dry, and unusually large

Constipation is a very common problem. It usually isn't a cause for concern. Healthy eating and exercise habits can help prevent it.

What Causes Constipation?

Reasons why people get constipated include:

  • Unhealthy diet. Constipation can be due to a diet that doesn't include enough water and fiber, both of which help the bowels move as they should. People who eat lots of processed foods, cheeses, white bread and bagels, and meats may find they're constipated often. A healthier diet that includes high-fiber foods (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) can keep the stool from getting hard and dry.
  • Not enough exercise. Moving around helps food move through the digestive system. So not getting enough physical activity can contribute to constipation.
  • Stress. People can get constipated when they're anxious about something, like a life change or a problem at home. Stress can affect how the digestive system works and can cause constipation, as well as other conditions, like diarrhea.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A person with IBS may have either constipation or diarrhea, as well as stomach pain and gas.
  • Ignoring the natural urge. Avoiding going to the bathroom, even when you really have the urge to go, can cause constipation. When you ignore the urge to go, it can be harder to go later on.
  • Some medicines. Sometimes, medicines like antidepressants and those used to treat iron deficiencies can lead to constipation.

In rare cases, constipation is a sign of other medical illnesses. Call your doctor if you continue to have problems, or if the constipation lasts for 2 to 3 weeks.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Constipation?

Different people have different bathroom habits. So someone who doesn't have a bowel movement every day isn't necessarily constipated. One person might go three times a day, while another might go once every 2–3 days.

But if you're going less than you normally do, or if it's often hard or painful to go, you might be constipated. A person with constipation might:

  • feel full or bloated
  • feel pain when making a bowel movement
  • have to strain to make a bowel movement
  • notice a little blood on the toilet paper

How Can I Deal With and Prevent Constipation?

To prevent and treat constipation:

  • Drink more liquids. Drinking enough water and other liquids helps keep stools soft so they can move more easily through the intestines. When you don't drink enough, the stool can get hard and dry, and you might get stopped up.
  • Eat more fiber. Eating high-fiber foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread, can help prevent constipation. Fiber can't be digested, so it helps clean out the intestines by moving the bowels along. A diet full of fatty, sugary, or starchy foods can slow the bowels down. To get more fiber in your diet, try fresh fruits like pears, apples (with the skin), oranges, and ripe bananas, or dried fruits like prunes. Other high-fiber foods include beans, oatmeal, whole-grain breads, and popcorn.
  • Make sure you get enough exercise. Physical activity helps move food through the digestive system and nudges the bowels into action, so be sure to get plenty of exercise. It can be as simple as playing catch, cycling, or shooting a few hoops.
  • Set a regular meal schedule. Eating is a natural stimulant for the bowels, so regular meals may help you develop routine bowel habits. You might schedule breakfast a little earlier to give yourself a chance for a relaxed visit to the bathroom before school.
  • Get into the habit of going. Maybe you don't want to use the bathroom at school, or maybe you just don't want to stop what you're doing right then. But ignoring your body's signals that it's time to go can make it harder to go later on.

Some medical conditions — like diabetes, lupus, or problems with the thyroid gland — also can cause constipation. If you're worried that your constipation is a sign of something else, talk to your parents and your doctor.

Date reviewed: July 2018