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What is the difference between stool softeners and stimulant laxatives?

Dr. Shauna Lorenzo-Rivero, MD
Colorectal Surgeon
Stool softeners usually make the stool the consistency of mud. Just as it is difficult to walk through mud, so can it be difficult to evacuate stool of this consistency if one has weak pelvic floor muscles. Stool softeners are not habit forming. But stimulant laxatives, which signal the colon to move – much like having your foot on the gas pedal -- can be. That means that you may not be able to defecate without the use of them if they have been used frequently.
Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

Stool softeners and stimulant laxatives differ in how they function. Stool softeners prevent or treat constipation by making the stools less hard. They do not directly cause bowel movements. Because of this, most stool softeners take one to three days to be effective. By contrast, stimulant laxatives, such as Cascara, bisacodyl, and castor oil, act by directly producing bowel movements. They do so by stimulating the muscles in the intestines to contract. The effects of stimulant laxatives are usually seen within two to 10 hours, although senna and cascara compounds may take up to 24 hours to work.

Stimulant laxatives, unlike stool softeners, keep fluid in the rectum to stimulate bowels and are used in more severe cases of constipation.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.