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What is constipation?

Constipation is difficulty passing stools (pooing) or infrequent bowel movements. It is common in both adults and children.

Constipation can be annoying and, occasionally, painful. It can usually be treated by making simple lifestyle changes. However, in some cases there may be an underlying problem. So, see your doctor if your constipation is bad or not getting better.

What are the symptoms of constipation?

The timing of bowel movements varies quite a lot between different people. The normal range for adults is from 3 bowel movements per day to 3 bowel movements per week. And breast-fed babies may have only one bowel movement per week.

So, if you're not having a movement every day, that doesn't necessarily mean there is a problem.

Constipation symptoms include:

  • having trouble with having a bowel movement
  • not having a bowel movement as often as usual
  • passing hard, lumpy stools
  • straining to have bowel movements
  • passing only small amounts at a time
  • feeling blocked, or as though you have not completely emptied your bowels

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What causes constipation?

Constipation happens when your poo is hard and dry, making it difficult to pass. It's usually caused by:

  • not eating enough fibre
  • not drinking enough water
  • not getting enough physical activity
  • ignoring the urge to pass a stool when you need to
  • being stressed or having a change in environment

You can also get constipation when you:

Babies and toddlers can also get constipated, especially when starting to eat solid foods. Older children sometimes become constipated if they hold in bowel movements.

When should I see my doctor?

Commonly, diet and lifestyle factors cause or contribute to constipation. However, in some cases there may be an underlying problem.

Occasionally, constipation can be a sign of an underlying condition such as bowel cancer. In such cases, there are likely to be other symptoms. These may include a recent change in bowel habits, weight loss, bleeding from the rectum or blood in stools, or abdominal pain, cramping or bloating.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. Also see your doctor if you have severe constipation or constipation that is not getting better with simple lifestyle changes.

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How is constipation diagnosed?

To make the diagnosis, your doctor will ask you about:

  • your symptoms
  • your lifestyle
  • any medical conditions you have
  • medicines you are taking (including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines)

Your doctor may also do a physical examination. This may include:

  • feeling your abdominal area
  • gently examining your anus and rectum (bottom part of the bowel) using a gloved finger


Tests may be recommended, particularly if your constipation is severe or if you have other symptoms. Tests can help detect underlying conditions that may be causing your constipation.

Tests your doctor might recommend include:

  • an x-ray of your abdomen
  • blood tests
  • colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy — procedures that use a flexible telescope to examine the inside of your bowel
  • specialised tests to see if there is a problem with the muscles that are used during a bowel movement

How is constipation treated?

There are several things you can do at home to prevent constipation and treat it if it does occur.

Constipation remedies

The following tips can help treat and prevent constipation.

If these measures don't work, ask your doctor for advice. They might need to check any medications you take, or prescribe a laxative to get your bowel moving.


Laxatives can be used to treat constipation. There are several different types. Your doctor will talk with you about which laxative may be best for your episode of constipation.

  • Bulk-forming laxatives, or natural laxatives, are fibre supplements. Examples include psyllium, ispaghula and sterculia. It is important to drink lots of fluids when taking these laxatives. Side effects can include bloating and flatulence.
  • Osmotic laxatives (e.g. lactulose, sorbitol, macrogol 3350) and stimulant laxatives (e.g. senna, bisacodyl) may work for people with chronic (ongoing) They can cause bloating and discomfort.
  • Stool softeners, such as docusate, are often used in combination with a stimulant laxative.

It can take several days for some laxatives to work. If you do not notice an improvement, talk to your doctor about other possible treatments for constipation relief.

Other treatments

There is a prescription medicine available to treat chronic (ongoing) constipation that has not responded to laxatives. This medicine is called prucalopride. It is only available to people with constipation not caused by another illness or medicine side effect. Common side effects with this medicine include headache and diarrhoea.

Complications of constipation

Being constipated can increase your chances of developing:

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Last reviewed: May 2022

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Top results


Constipation is when you have difficulty passing stools (poo), need to strain when going to the toilet or have infrequent bowel movements.

Read more on WA Health website

Constipation in children -

When children are constipated, they have stools that are hard, dry and difficult (or painful) to pass. Constipation in kids is usually behavioural and caused by their decision to delay going to the toilet. 

Read more on myDr website

Constipation: self-care -

Constipation is when your bowel motions take more effort than usual and your stools can be small and hard. Find out what products are available for constipation.

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Constipation in babies (0 to 1 years)

Constipation is when your baby’s stool is hard and dry, making it difficult to pass poo. Read on to learn what’s normal, or how to treat constipation.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Constipation during pregnancy

Constipation is common during pregnancy. Learn about the causes, and how you can prevent or reduce symptoms, both before and during your pregnancy.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Constipation and children - Better Health Channel

A healthy diet, plenty of fluids, exercise and regular toilet habits can help relieve constipation in children

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Constipation | Faecal incontinence| Continence Foundation of Australia

Constipation is the passing of hard, dry bowel motions (stools) that may be infrequent or difficult to pass. Dietary tips for managing constipation

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Constipation in babies and children | Raising Children Network

Children with constipation have hard poo that’s difficult to push out. A high-fibre diet and regular toileting usually helps. Some children need laxatives.

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Faecal incontinence in children (encopresis) -

Underwear soiling (also known as faecal incontinence) is a problem that arises in children commonly as a result of ongoing constipation. Treatment is similar to that recommended for constipation.

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Faecal Incontinence | Bowel| Continence Foundation of Australia

Faecal incontinence is a term used to describe leakage from the bowel due involuntary bowel movements. This includes diarrhoea and or constipation. You may also find you have excessive wind or experience staining in your underwear.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

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