Expert Author Helen Drake
Constipation is the passing of infrequent and hard stools, due to the colon absorbing too much water or if the colon muscle is too sluggish. This results in stools becoming hard, dry and difficult to pass.
Everyone's bowel habits vary - some will pass stools several times a day, while others maybe only several times a week. You know you are constipated when you have bowel movement changes causing you to defecate less frequently and are having trouble passing stools.
Almost everyone experiences this at some point in their lives and it can have various causes including: not enough fiber in your diet, lack of exercise, dairy products, certain medications, changes in diet, changes in routine, irritable bowel syndrome, dehydration, stress, problems with the colon/intestines, etc.
Causes of Constipation
Babies can also become constipated at times when there are changes to their diet i.e. moving from breast to bottled milk or when they are being weaned onto solid foods. Bottle fed babies are more likely to become constipated than breast fed babies. Breast fed babies may only pass a stool once a week due to most of the milk being absorbed into the gut, but this is normal and does not mean they are constipated.
Children may suffer from constipation during times of change in their diet or routine (change in home situation, change in school, etc). They may also develop a vicious cycle when they pass a painful stool and it frightens them into withholding the next stool. Due to the straining, they end up tearing anal tissue, which then makes the pain worse and so the withholding worse.
Toilet training can also be traumatic for children and can lead to withholding stools and chronic constipation. If you're having problems toilet training your child, then postpone it for a while and try again. Some children are toilet trained by the time they are 18 months old and others, not until they are 3 years old. Every child is different and this is something that you should not try to enforce until they are ready to be trained.
There are other things which can cause your child's constipation, which can be the same as those described for an adult...
The main cause of constipation in adults is usually due to dietary habits, so make sure you are getting lots of fiber in your diet - fresh fruit, beans and lots of vegetables. Also, make sure that you are drinking plenty of water every day.
Lack of exercise can also play a role because inactivity can also make the bowel sluggish, so try to make sure you get regular exercise.
When you feel the urge to have a bowel movement you should always go (if possible). Postponing bowel movements is not good (for any age group) as it can lead to chronic constipation.
As mentioned for children, changes in your lifestyle/daily routine can also cause constipation. Even going on vacation can interrupt normal regularity since you are often eating meals at different times, eating different foods, etc.
There are, of course, illnesses that may cause constipation, such as cystic fibrosis, under active thyroid, digestive abnormalities and any illness which comes with a fever. Stress too can also be a factor.
When to Call the Doctor
Occasional bouts of constipation for any age group are nothing to worry about, however, you should contact your doctor if:
If your baby does not pass a stool within 24 hours of being born seek medical attention as they could have an abnormality of the bowel. Also, if your baby is irritable and off his/her food, especially if there is any blood in the stool or small tears around the anus as these are signs that they are passing hard stools.
In children, if you notice any of the following symptoms and they are not gone after three days, then you should consult a doctor: if there is any blood in the stools or anal tearing; abdominal pain and/or increasing pain when passing stools; the child soiling their pants; and the constipation may also be accompanied by vomiting.
The symptoms can be much the same in adults as they are for children, but you can try some self care at home by adjusting your diet, increasing your fiber, drinking lots of concentrated fruit juice and vegetable juice. Call your doctor if there is no improvement after two weeks.
*For all age groups, if there is sudden constipation, accompanied by abdominal cramping, fever, vomiting and abdominal swelling, then you should seek medical advice immediately as this may indicate a blockage in the bowels, which requires urgent medical attention.