What Are Laxatives? - Definition, Types & Side Effects

What Are Laxatives? - Definition, Types & Side Effects
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  • 0:02 What Are Laxatives?
  • 0:41 Types of Laxatives
  • 2:42 Side Effects
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Zonts

Heather has taught in AD and BSN Nursing programs and has a master's degree in nursing.

In this lesson, you'll learn what laxatives are and will explore the different types of laxatives. You'll also discover the potential side effects of this family of medication, then you can test your knowledge with a short quiz.

What Are Laxatives?

Let us follow the case of Paul, a patient who is experiencing an inability to move his bowels. He comes to the doctor's office complaining of abdominal pain and no bowel movements for 3 days. His constipation has been happening more frequently, and he is looking for a medication that can prevent this from occurring.

This can be accomplished by increasing the bulk (diameter) of the stool, softening the stool, or lubricating the intestinal tract. In Paul's case, the physician may prescribe a laxative, which is a form of medication that helps stimulate or facilitate bowel movements in these different ways.

Types of Laxatives

Let's discuss the various types of laxatives that the physician might consider for treating Paul's problem. Each promotes a bowel movement in different ways.

The first is a hyperosmotic. Hyperosmotic laxatives pull water into the intestines to help soften the stool. By increasing the water content of the stool, hyperosmotic laxatives acts as lubricants for movement through the intestines. This type of laxative acts primarily on the large intestine. Since it pulls fluid from the tissues and blood vessels surrounding the intestines, Paul would need to increase his fluid intake to prevent dehydration. An example is GoLytely.

Next, we have a stimulant. Stimulant laxatives make the stool move through the intestines more quickly. Such laxatives do this by irritating the lining of the intestines, which stimulates peristaltic waves through the intestine. An example of this is Dulcolax.

There's also saline. Saline laxatives inhibit reabsorption of water in the small intestine. The increased absorption of water creates watery stool, which increases the pressure against the intestinal walls, stimulating peristalsis. An example of this is Milk of Magnesia.

Now, we'll talk about bulk-forming. Bulk-forming laxatives absorb water into the intestines and increase the bulk (size) of the stool. The increased size pushes against the intestinal walls, stimulating peristalsis. These are considered the safest form of laxative and may be used long-term. An example of is Metamucil.

Lastly, we'll discuss emollient. Emollient laxatives soften the stool and lubricate the intestinal tract. Softeners increase the amount of fluid and fat absorbed by the intestinal tract by preventing the reabsorption of water from the intestines. This causes the stool to expand and push against the intestinal walls, in turn stimulating peristalsis. An example is mineral oil.

Side Effects

Before coming to a decision about which laxative is the best option for Paul, he and the physician go over the common side effects of each:

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