Stool Softeners: How They Work and When to Use Them

Medically Reviewed By Kelsey Trull, PA-C
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Stool softeners help ease straining with bowel movements. They help add water to the stool, making them softer and easier to pass. Stool softeners are not a long-term treatment. This article explains stool softeners and how they work. It also discusses stool softeners versus laxatives, when to use stool softeners, and the available types for children and adults.

Learn their side effects, how you can soften your stool through your diet, and when to contact your primary care professional about your constipation.

What is a stool softener?

rolls of toilet paper in a bathroom
Diane Durongpisitkul/Stocksy United

A stool softener is a surfactant. It draws more moisture and lipids (fats) into your stool while it passes through your colon. This extra moisture makes the stool softer and easier to pass. Usually, you take a dose of stool softener at night with a full glass of water.

Docusate sodium (Colace, Ex-Lax Stool Softener, Diocto) is an example of a stool softener. It comes as a gel capsule, tablet, liquid, or syrup you take by mouth. It also comes as an enema.

When should you use a stool softener? 

Stool softeners are helpful when straining to have a bowel movement could cause harm. This could include certain heart conditions, hemorrhoids, after surgery, or after having a baby. Stool softeners are also sometimes used in preparation the day before surgery.

Relief of temporary constipation can also be a reason to use a stool softener. Constipation includes hard to pass and painful bowel movements.

Find out the most common causes of constipation here.

How should you take a stool softener?

The typical oral dose is once per day, at night, with a full glass of water. You may administer a docusate enema 1–3 times a day until a bowel movement. 

It takes 1–3 days to start to feel the effects of a stool softener. Generally, you should not use stool softeners for more than 1 week unless your clinician advises otherwise.

If you are still experiencing constipation after 1 week, contact your doctor about the possibility of taking a long-term laxative. Diet and other types of laxatives can also help you have more regular bowel movements.

Stool softener vs. laxative

“Laxative” is the overarching term used to describe substances that help you have a bowel movement. 

A stool softener is a type of laxative, but not all laxatives are stool softeners. Some laxatives work in other ways to help you have a bowel movement.

The following are the main types of laxatives, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. A supplementary source for this information is the American College of Gastroenterology.

Type of laxativePurposeTime neededExample
surfactant (stool softener)
adds more water to your stool to make it softer2–3 daysdocusate sodium
bulk-forming
adds more bulk, or weight, to your stool, which helps stimulate your colon2–3 dayspsyllium, polycarbophil, and methylcellulose
osmotic
draws more water into the intestines to make the stool easier to pass2–3 dayspolythene glycol and
magnesium hydroxide
stimulant
stimulates the muscles that line your intestines to help push along the stool6–12 hoursbisacodyl and sennosides
stimulant suppository
stimulates the muscles that line the large intestine and rectum15–60 minutesbisacodyl suppository
lubricant
coats the outside of the stool making it more slippery15–60 minutesglycerine

Combination products

Some stool softeners come as a combination pill, containing other laxative ingredients to stimulate a bowel movement. 

Senokot S is a combination medication of senna and docusate. Senna is a stimulant laxative and docusate is a stool softener. Together, they can help relieve constipation on a short-term basis.

Senokot S comes in liquid form, chewable and non-chewable tablets, and powder.

Taking laxatives on a long-term basis can cause your body to become dependent on them for a bowel movement. For this reason, you should not take laxatives for longer than 1 week.

Learn more about laxatives here.

Stool softeners for infants and older children

Increasing fluid intake and dietary fiber is a good way to start treating children with constipation. 

Your child’s medical professional may suggest an enema or laxative to help relieve constipation in the child. However, you should not give a child younger than 12 years of age a stool softener or other laxatives unless directed by their doctor. 

Have a toddler with constipation? Find out what to do here.

Potential side effects of stool softeners

Some side effects of stool softeners and suggested remedies include:

  • Stomach cramping or bloating: If you experience stomach cramping or bloating, try reducing your dose.
  • Throat irritation: If you experience throat irritation while taking the liquid, try switching forms.
  • Nausea: If you experience nausea, try taking it with a snack.
  • Diarrhea: If you experience diarrhea, stop taking the stool softener.

Precautions

Before taking a stool softener, let your doctor know of all medications, herbal products, and nutritional supplements you are taking. Also, let them know of any medication allergies you have. 

If you take mineral oil, your doctor needs to know so they can more closely monitor you for side effects. They may change the dose of the stool softener to minimize side effects. 

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your doctor before using a stool softener. 

Adverse reaction

Get immediate medical help (call 911) if you think you are experiencing an allergic reaction to the stool softener. Symptoms can include:

Ways to promote bowel movements naturally

You can make several changes to your diet and other self-care strategies that may help your constipation.

Diet and physical activity

  • adding more high fiber foods to your diet
  • drinking plenty of water and other liquids throughout the day
  • moving more, which helps the muscles of your intestines work more effectively

Find out which foods can help constipation here.

Bowel training

Bowel training trains your body to have a bowel movement at about the same time each day. For example, sitting on the toilet 15–20 minutes after eating breakfast each morning can help train your body to pass stool at that time each morning. 

Relaxing on the toilet with your feet on a low step stool can also help the process. 

When to contact a doctor for constipation

Call your doctor if you experience:

  • bleeding from your rectum
  • symptoms of an allergic reaction (difficulty breathing or swallowing, hives, rash)
  • hard stools after 1 week of taking a stool softener 

Learn more about when to see a doctor for constipation.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some other questions people often ask about stool softeners.

What is the most effective stool softener?

Docusate is the most studied stool softener. Medical research and the use of docusate have continually supported its effectiveness. It is also the most common laxative nurses administer to patients, according to a 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

How can I soften my stool quickly?

A stool softener needs 1–3 days to work. If you need faster relief, try a stimulant laxative, which may work within 6–12 hours.

You may also consider a glycerin suppository, which may help you have a bowel movement in 25–60 minutes. For an even quicker response, try a sodium phosphate enema (Fleet Enema), which may cause a bowel movement within 1–5 minutes

Learn four reasons to do an enema here.

Is it OK to take stool softeners daily?

It is generally OK to take a stool softener daily for 1 week. If your condition has not improved after 1 week of taking stool softeners, let a healthcare professional know. Taking a stool softener every day can make your body depend on it for a bowel movement. 

What is the safest stool softener to use daily?

Docusate is the safest stool softener to use daily for up to 1 week at a time in people ages 12 years and older. However, the safest way to soften stools is through lifestyle practices. Increasing your fluid and fiber intake can help your body have more easy-to-pass stool.

Summary

Stool softeners can be a great help when you have occasional constipation. The main one is docusate sodium. Surfactants help make your stool softer and easier to pass by adding more water to it. If necessary, you can take a stool softener for up to 7 days. However, you should not use it for longer than that.

If you are still experiencing constipation after stool softener treatment, seek the advice of your primary care clinician. 

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Medical Reviewer: Kelsey Trull, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 May 18
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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