Constipation means infrequent or difficult bowel movements. It often occurs when digested food moves too slowly through the digestive tract. As a result, the body removes (absorbs) too much water from the stools, causing them to become hard, dry and difficult to pass.
Constipation is very common: one in 4 Canadians has symptoms of constipation. It can affect the young and elderly and everyone in between. For some people, constipation develops suddenly and lasts for a short time. For others, particularly older people, it may begin gradually and last for an extended period of time.
Constipation in Children
Constipation in children doesn’t necessarily signal the same problems as it does in adults: children often develop constipation when they deliberately or subconsciously prevent themselves from passing stool. They may be reluctant to interrupt playtime, embarrassed to use a public washroom, or afraid to have an unpleasant bowel movement (a particular concern for kids at the potty-training stage).
Of course, some of the causes of adult constipation also apply to kids, such as:
- A low-fibre diet
- Certain medications, such as antacids, opioids or antidepressants
- Certain diseases, such as diabetes or Down syndrome
- Anatomic abnormalities such as Hirschsprung’s disease Experts recommend having your child see a doctor if constipation symptoms last more than two weeks, and sooner than that if the constipation is accompanied by fever, vomiting, weight loss, blood in the stool, cracks in the skin around the anus, or rectal prolapse (intestine protruding from the anus).
- Treatment, which depends on the child’s age and severity of the problem, may include changing diet, adopting a regular schedule for clearing bowels, and (in some cases, such as stool stuck in the bowel) taking laxatives.
What causes constipation?
Constipation arises if you have a problem that affects your colon in one or more of three key areas:
- Intake: what you eat (e.g., food, water, fibre)
- Transit: how quickly stool moves through your colon
- Outlet: how stool exits your body.
How can I prevent constipation?
- Food and drink: Start by aiming for about 18 grams of fibre per day, which you can gradually increase to 20-30 grams. (Look for fibre content on food labels or online.) Similarly, if you’re like most adults and don’t drink enough fluids, gradually increase your intake of fluids such as water and broth, while cutting back on caffeine, alcohol, sugary drinks.
- Exercise: For many, regular exercise may improve your constipation symptoms, along with your mood, energy and general fitness. Aim for at least 30 minutes of walking or physical activity five times a week.
- Toilet habits: Practice good “toilet hygiene” by setting aside a time – ideally in the morning or about 30 minutes after a meal – to pass stool. When you feel the urge to defecate, ignoring it can significantly increase your chances of having constipation. Familiarity with local facilities can help ensure you can get to a bathroom quickly when you feel the urge. When you use the toilet, make sure you have enough time and privacy to pass stools comfortably.
- Regular daily routine: Strive to maintain a regular lifestyle. As a general rule, the more consistent your eating and sleeping patterns, the better your bowel function.