How Stool Softeners Work and Differ From Laxatives

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Stool softeners are over-the-counter (OTC) products used to soften hard stools or to prevent constipation. Before you decide to try a stool softener, it's a good idea to know how they work and how safe they are. You'll also find it helpful to know when you would choose to use them instead of taking a laxative.

Stool softeners come in capsule, liquid, and tablet form that you take by mouth. Brand names include Colace, Correctol, Diocto, Doxinate, Ex-Lax Stool Softener, Fleet Sof-Lax, Modane Soft, Phillips' Stool Softener, and Surfak.

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How Stool Softeners Work

Stool softeners work by increasing the amount of moisture to your stools, which makes them softer and easier to pass. This then sets you up for a more comfortable bowel movement, one that should not require straining.

The primary active ingredient in OTC stool softener products is docusate. The medicine is thought to work locally within your large intestine.

Most stool softener products should soften your stool and trigger the urge for a bowel movement within 12 to 72 hours (three days).

How to Take

Typically, a stool softener is taken before you go to bed at night. Make sure to follow package directions and follow the exact recommended dosage.

If you choose a capsule or tablet form, drink a full 8-ounce glass of water as you take the medication. Regardless of the type of product used, make sure to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.

Stool softeners are designed for short-term use. This means that you would use them for approximately one week.

If you are considering taking a stool softener for longer than one week, ask your healthcare provider to make sure that it is safe for you to do so.


Stool softeners are not absorbed into the bloodstream and are typically well-tolerated. Side effects are rare.

Some people may experience mild side effects such as nausea, abdominal cramps, and bloating. Throat irritation may occur as a result of using a liquid form of the medication. If you experience any of these mild symptoms, discontinue the use of the medication.

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience severe symptoms of:

  • Breathing or swallowing difficulty
  • Fever
  • Skin rash
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Vomiting

People who take stool softeners on a chronic basis may find that they develop a tolerance to the medication and need to increase their dosage over time. Taking stool softeners on a long-term basis should only be done under the advisement of your healthcare provider.

Stool softeners may be safe for children or for people who are pregnant, but also should only be used with the permission of your healthcare provider or your child's pediatrician.

Stool Softeners vs. Laxatives

Stool softeners are often considered a better choice when there is a particular need for you to keep your stools soft so as to avoid straining during bowel movements. This would include the following circumstances:

  • Following childbirth
  • Following surgery
  • When dealing with hemorrhoids or anal fissure
  • If advised by your healthcare provider due to a heart condition

Laxatives, on the other hand, are the better choice for the treatment of constipation. If you have not had a bowel movement for several days, taking a laxative should help trigger the urge to evacuate.

Laxatives are also the better choice if you deal with constipation on a chronic basis, though they too are designed for short-term use.

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  1. NHS. Docusate. Updated January 29, 2018.

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Treatment for constipation. Updated May 2018.