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Constipation

Updated 12 August 2020

How long is too long to be constipated?

We all suffer from a bout of constipation from time to time – but when do you need to be concerned?

  • Constipation is unpleasant, but is usually only temporary
  • There are underlying conditions that can cause constipation to last longer
  • Even though 'regular' bowel movements differ from person to person, constipation can last 'too long'

Constipation is the symptom of an underlying cause, rather than a condition by itself. It occurs when the colon reabsorbs too much water, or if the muscles in the colon are contracting too slowly or poorly, causing the stool to move too slowly and lose too much water.

This can result in not having a regular bowel movement, which can lead to discomfort and feeling bloated. But the definition of “constipation” differs from person to person – some people can go for a couple of days without a bowel movement, while other people are as regular as clockwork.

Serious constipation occurs when stools become hard and difficult to pass, and there’s a feeling of incomplete emptying after a bowel movement. Almost everyone has constipation at some point. Fortunately, it’s usually not serious and passes with time. But when should you be concerned?

It differs – but three days is too long

While the normal number of bowel movements differs from person to person according to their dietary habits, lifestyles and age, experts reckon that any bout of constipation that lasts three days or longer is too long. Faeces then become harder and more difficult to pass.

Constipation can either be acute, due to sudden medical illness, or chronic, where the duration is long and where it’s usually caused by conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, hypothyroidism or Parkinson’s disease, often causing significant pain and discomfort.

When should you head to the doctor?

Constipation may be rectified at home with some dietary changes or a mild laxative, but it’s important to know when it requires medical attention.

Faeces can become hardened and lodged in the rectum. This is the most severe outcome of constipation and can cause complications like bleeding and bowel obstruction. Head to the doctor if:

  • You experience severe abdominal cramps
  • You have nausea and vomiting
  • Your stomach is severely bloated
  • You have blood in your stool
  • Your constipation doesn't improve with any home remedies

What can you do to prevent constipation?

Constipation can occur because of various factors, especially when there is a change in diet or routine, but there are ways to ensure that you are regular:

  • Drink enough water to keep the digestive system lubricated and moving.
  • Increase the fibre in your diet by eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrain or bran products. Don’t add too much fibre at once, as this may lead to discomfort and bloating.
  • Decrease your alcohol and caffeine intake. Caffeinated drinks include coffee, tea and colas. It’s a good idea to have an extra glass of water for every cup of coffee, tea or alcoholic drink.
  • Don’t “hold in” a bowel movement, as this can worsen constipation.

READ | 7 unpleasant side-effects of constipation

READ | Yes, you can eat too much fibre 

READ | Here's why your period is making you constipated (and what you can do about it)

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