All About Stool Softeners

When to Choose a Stool Softener Over a Laxative

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Stool softeners are over-the-counter products used to soften hard stools or to prevent constipation. In this overview you will learn all about stool softeners - how they work, how safe they are, and when you would choose to use them instead of taking a laxative.

How Stool Softeners Work

Stool softeners work by increasing the amount moisture to your stools, which makes them softer and easier to pass.

This then sets you up for a more comfortable bowel movement, one that should not require straining. The primary active ingredient in over-the-counter stool softener products is docusate. The medicine is thought to work locally within your large intestine. Most stool softener products should soften your stool and trigger the urge for a bowel movement within 12 to 72 hours (3 days).

Types of Stool Softeners

Stool softeners come in capsule, liquid and tablet form that you take by mouth. Brand names include:

  • Colace®
  • Correctol®
  • Diocto®
  • Doxinate
  • Ex-Lax Stool Softener®
  • Fleet Sof-Lax®
  • Modane Soft
  • Phillips' Stool Softener
  • Surfak®

How Long Can You Take a Stool Softener?

Stool softeners are designed for short-term use, meaning that you would use them for approximately one week. If you are considering taking a stool softener for longer than one week, ask your doctor to make sure that it is safe for you to do so.

Safety of Stool Softeners

Stool softeners are not absorbed into the bloodstream and are typically well-tolerated. 

Side effects are rare. Some people may experience mild side effects of nausea, abdominal cramps and bloating. Throat irritation may occur as a result of using a liquid form of the medication.

If you experience any of these mild symptoms, discontinue the use of the medication. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience severe symptoms of:

  • Breathing or swallowing difficulty
  • Fever
  • Skin rash
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Vomiting

People who take stool softeners on a chronic basis may find that they develop a tolerance to the medication and need to increase their dosage over time. Again, taking stool softeners on a long-term basis should only be done under the advisement of your doctor.

Stool softeners may be safe for pregnant women or for children, but also should only be used with permission of your doctor or your child's pediatrician.

When to Use a Stool Softener Instead of a Laxative

Stool softeners are the better choice when there is a particular need for you to keep your stools soft so as to avoid straining during bowel movements. This would include the following circumstances:

  • Following childbirth
  • Following surgery
  • When dealing with a hemorrhoid or anal fissure
  • If advised by your doctor do to a heart condition.

Laxatives, on the other hand, are the better choice for the treatment of constipation. If you have not had a bowel movement in several days, taking a laxative will help to trigger the urge to evacuate.

Laxatives are also the better choice if you deal with constipation on a chronic basis.

How to Use Stool Softeners

Typically a stool softener is taken before you go to bed at night. Make sure to follow package directions and follow the exact recommended dosage. If you choose a capsule or tablet form, drink a full eight ounce glass of water as you take the medication. Regardless of the type of product used, make sure to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.


Medline Plus “Stool Softeners" Accessed May 16, 2016.

Pare, P., et. al. "Recommendations on chronic constipation (including constipation associated with irritable bowel syndrome) treatment" Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology 2007 21:3B–22B.

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