Constipation can also cause your stools to be hard and lumpy, as well as unusually large or small.
The severity of constipation varies from person to person. Many people only experience constipation for a short time, but for others, constipation can be a long-term (chronic) condition that causes significant pain and discomfort and affects quality of life.
What causes constipation?
It’s often difficult to identify the exact cause of constipation. However, there are a number of things that contribute to the condition, including:
- not eating enough fibre, such as fruit, vegetables and cereals
- a change in your routine or lifestyle, such as a change in your eating habits
- ignoring the urge to pass stools
- side effects of certain medications
- not drinking enough fluids
- anxiety or depression
In children, poor diet, fear about using the toilet and problems toilet training can all lead to constipation.
Constipation can occur in babies, children and adults. It’s estimated that around 1 in every 7 adults and up to 1 in every 3 children in the UK has constipation at any one time.
The condition affects twice as many women as men and is also more common in older adults and during pregnancy.
When to see your GP
You may be able to treat constipation yourself by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle (see below). If these changes don’t help and the problem continues, you should see your GP.
Also speak to your GP if you think your child might be constipated.
Diet and lifestyle changes are usually recommended as the first treatment for constipation.
This includes gradually increasing your daily intake of fibre, making sure you drink plenty of fluids, and trying to get more exercise.
If these aren’t effective, your GP may prescribe an oral laxative medication that can help you empty your bowels.
Treatment for constipation is effective, although in some cases it can take several months before a regular bowel pattern is re-established.
Making the diet and lifestyle changes mentioned above can also help to reduce your risk of developing constipation in the first place.
Giving yourself enough time and privacy to pass stools comfortably may also help, and you should try not to ignore the urge to go to the toilet.
For most people constipation rarely causes complications, but people with long-term constipation can develop:
- haemorrhoids (piles)
- faecal impaction (where dry, hard stools collect in the rectum)
- bowel incontinence (the leakage of liquid stools)