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Constipation

What Is Constipation?

Someone might have constipation if they:

  • have fewer than three bowel movements (BMs) in a week
  • have trouble having a bowel movement
  • have stool (poop) that's hard, dry, and unusually large

Constipation (pronounced: con-stuh-PAY-shun) is a very common problem. It usually isn't a cause for concern. Healthy eating and regular exercise can help prevent it.

What Causes Constipation?

Reasons why people get constipated include:

  • Unhealthy diet. Constipation is common if a person’s diet doesn't include enough water and fiber, both of which help the bowels move as they should. People who eat lots of processed foods, cheese, white bread and bagels, and meat may find they're constipated more often. A healthier diet that includes high-fiber foods (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) can keep your poop moving.
  • Not enough exercise. Exercise helps food move through the digestive system. So not getting enough physical activity can contribute to constipation.
  • Stress. People can get constipated when they're anxious about something, like schoolwork or a problem at home. Stress can affect how the digestive system works and can cause constipation or diarrhea.
  • Ignoring the natural urge to go. Avoiding going to the bathroom, even when you really have the urge to go, can lead to constipation. When you ignore the urge to go, it can be harder to go later on.
  • Some medicines. Medicines like iron supplements and antidepressants can lead to constipation.

In rare cases, constipation is a sign of a medical problem. Call your doctor if you’re concerned about your bowel movements.

What Are the Signs & 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 2–3 days.

But if you're going less than you normally do, or if it's often hard or painful to go, you might be constipated. A person with constipation might:

  • feel full or bloated
  • feel pain when having a bowel movement
  • have to strain a lot to have a bowel movement
  • notice a little blood on the toilet paper or in the toilet

How Can I Deal With and Prevent Constipation?

To prevent and treat constipation:

  • Drink more liquids. Drinking enough water throughout the day helps keep stools soft so they can move more easily through the intestines. When you don't drink enough, poop can get hard and dry, and make it harder to go to the bathroom.
  • Eat more fiber. Eating high-fiber foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain bread, can help prevent constipation. Fiber is not digested, so it helps move the poop along. A diet full of fatty foods and processed carbohydrates can slow the bowels down. To get more fiber in your diet, try fresh fruits like pears, apples (with the skin), dried fruits like figs and prunes, and vegetables, like broccoli and spinach. Other high-fiber foods include beans and lentils, whole-grain breads and cereals, oatmeal, and popcorn.
  • Make sure you get enough exercise.Physical activity helps move food through the digestive system and nudges the bowels into action, so be sure to get plenty of exercise. It can be as simple as walking, cycling, or shooting a few hoops.
  • Set a regular meal schedule. Eating is a natural stimulant for the bowels, so regular meals may help you develop routine bowel habits. You might 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 ignoring your body's signals that it's time to go can make it harder to go later on.

Some medical conditions — like thyroid problems, diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — 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: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021