Information, Symptoms, Treatments and Resources


Best OTC Solutions to Your Digestive Problems


For Constipation

What's causing your constipation? Most likely, something on your dinner table. A diet high in dairy products and low in fiber and water can make it difficult for you to pass a stool. If you’ve gone more than three days without a bowel movement, or are having trouble passing a stool, you might consider temporarily taking a laxative to help you through the problem.

There are several types of laxatives available over-the counter; your doctor can help you decide which one is best for you:

  • Bulk-forming laxatives, which often contain ingredients like psyllium, methylcellulose and polycarbophil, draw water into the stool to make them larger and easier to pass. Drink plenty of water while taking.
  • Osmotic laxatives draw fluid into the bowel from the nearby tissue. Osmotic laxatives often have ingredients like polyethylene glycol or magnesium.
  • Lubricant laxatives, such as glycerin suppositories, coat the surface of stools or the anus to make it easier for stools to pass. Mineral oil is a common lubricant laxative.
  • Stimulant laxatives should only be used for a few days, as they are harsh on the body. They cause the bowels to squeeze the stool out.

Laxatives don’t usually have side effects, but, in some cases, they can cause cramping, gas, bloating, nausea or diarrhea. Don't use laxatives for more than a week without checking in with your doctor: long-term laxative use can be unhealthy, and may mask a problem your doctor should know about. Your doctor can help you make lifestyle and dietary changes to treat constipation long-term.

Talk to your doctor before using laxatives if you have stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, a fever of over 101.5 degrees or a sudden change in your bowel habits that continues for two or more weeks. You should also consult your doctor if you are currently taking prescription medication as laxatives make it more difficult for your body to absorb certain medicines and nutrients.


For Diarrhea

Everyone experiences it now and again — the dreaded diarrhea. Diarrhea (large amounts of loose or watery stools) occurs when your colon is unable to adequately absorb the liquid from the food and fluids you ingest, and is most often caused by a stomach bug. Diarrhea doesn't usually require medication, and resolves itself after a couple of days; most times, lifestyle changes can help prevent future cases of diarrhea. However, antidiarrheal medications can help with symptoms, especially if you have cramping. Your doctor may suggest one of two common over-the-counter antidiarrheals:

  • Loperamide slows down fluid moving through your bowels.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate decreases the flow of fluids in your bowel, and also reduces inflammation and may kill the bacteria that cause the diarrhea in the first place.

Loperamide can make you drowsy, so be sure to read the label carefully; the label will tell you what behaviors, if any, you should avoid while on the medication. Bismuth subsalicylate can make your tongue and/or stool look black; this side effect is harmless. If you think your diarrhea might be caused by an infection, talk to your doctor, as another medicine might be better at treating the bug. You should also talk to your doctor if you have a fever or find mucus or blood in your stools, as your diarrhea may signal a more serious problem.


Finding Relief

The right over-the-counter medicine can bring quick relief for many short-term gastrointestinal problems. Remember to read the labels of any medicines you are planning to take, and talk to your doctor if you have questions or concerns. 


Published June 19, 2013


Dr. Christopher Watters is a MedHelp expert and contributor and a surgeon at the Duke University Medical Center. He has nearly 30 years of experience in treating patients, and specializes in the gastrointestinal system. He is a member of the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract and the American College of Phlebology.


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