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Constipation

What Is It?

Constipation is not having a bowel movement as often as you usually do, or having a tough time going because the stool is hard and dry. It's a very common problem, and usually happens because a person's diet doesn't include enough fluids and fiber.

Constipation usually isn't a cause for concern — it's preventable and most cases can be resolved with healthy eating and exercise habits.

constipation teen illustration

After you chew and swallow food, it heads to your stomach. From there, it's on to the small intestine, then the large intestine (or bowels), and finally out of the body through the rectum and anus.

As food moves through your digestive system, your body soaks up water and nutrients it needs from the food. What's left over comes out as stool. Normal stool is usually soft and easy to pass, and it generally shouldn't be too difficult to have a bowel movement. But sometimes the bowels just don't move like they should.

A person is considered constipated when he or she has had fewer than three bowel movements in a week; when the stools are hard, dry, and unusually large; or when it's hard for the person to have a bowel movement.

Causes of Constipation

Reasons why people get constipated include:

  • Unhealthy diet. Most of the time, constipation is due to a diet that doesn't include enough water and fiber, both of which help your bowels move properly. People who eat a lot of fast food may find they're constipated more often. This is because fast food is full of fats (burgers, fries, milkshakes) and processed sugars (candy, cookies, sugary soft drinks). A healthier diet that includes high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can keep your stool from getting hard and dry.
  • Stress. People can get constipated when they're anxious about something, like a life change or a problem at home. Research has shown that stress can affect how the digestive system functions and can cause constipation, as well as other conditions, like diarrhea.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Some people have a condition called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which can act through stress or by eating certain "trigger" foods, which usually are fatty or spicy. A person with IBS may have either constipation or diarrhea, as well as stomach pain and gas.
  • Ignoring the natural urge. Avoiding going to the bathroom, even when you really have the urge to go, can cause constipation. When you ignore the urge to go, it can be harder to go later on.
  • Certain medications. Sometimes, medications like antidepressants and those used to treat iron deficiencies can lead to constipation.

In rare cases, constipation is a sign of other medical illnesses, so keep your doctor informed if you continue to have problems, or if the constipation lasts for 2 to 3 weeks.

Symptoms of Constipation

Different people have different bathroom habits, so someone who doesn't have a bowel movement every day isn't necessarily constipated. One person might go three times a day, while another might go once every 3 days. The real sign of whether you're constipated is if you're going less than you normally do.

A person with constipation might:

  • feel full or bloated
  • feel pain making a bowel movement
  • have to strain to make a bowel movement
  • notice a little blood on the toilet paper

Dealing With Constipation

To prevent and treat constipation:

  • Drink more fluids. Drinking enough water and other liquids helps keep stools soft so they can move more easily through the intestines. When you don't drink enough, the stool can get hard and dry, and you might get stopped up.
  • Eat more fiber. Foods that are high in fiber, like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread, can help prevent constipation. Fiber can't be digested, so it helps clean out the intestines by moving the bowels along, while a diet full of fatty, sugary, or starchy foods can slow the bowels down. Try getting more fiber in your diet by eating apples, oatmeal, oranges, bananas, baked potatoes, and popcorn.
  • Make sure you get enough exercise. Physical activity helps move food through your digestive system and nudges the bowels into action, so be sure to get plenty of exercise. It can be as simple as playing catch, cycling, or shooting a few hoops.
  • Develop a regular meal schedule. Since eating is a natural stimulant for the bowels, regular meals may help you develop routine bowel habits. If necessary, schedule breakfast a little earlier to give yourself a chance for a relaxed visit to the bathroom before school.
  • Get into the habit of going. Maybe you don't want to use the bathroom at school, or maybe you just don't want to stop what you're doing right then. But if you make a habit of ignoring your body's signals that it's time to go, it can be tougher to go later on.

Some medical conditions — like diabetes, lupus, or problems with the thyroid gland — also can cause constipation. If you're worried that your constipation is a sign of something else, talk to your parents and your doctor.

Reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011