How Bad Is It to Hold Your Poop?

Ignoring an urge to have a bowel movement for a short time won't cause harm

Toilet paper rolls
Audrey Shtecinjo/Stocksy United  

It’s a fact of life: everyone poops. How often we have bowel movements and what the stool looks like, however, varies a certain amount from person to person. This individuality, along with the cultural taboos around body functions, are some reasons why there are many misconceptions about bowel movements.

Many people do not know the definition of a typical frequency for bowel movements and may have concern over “holding in” a bowel movement for a period of time. It’s not necessary to have a bowel movement every day (although some people do) but how bad is it to hold in the stool when the urge "to go" hits? Generally, doing so won't cause any harm, but making it a habit can result in some undesireable health effects.

Defining Constipation

To understand why it’s important to relieve the bowels when the urge hits, it’s necessary to have some background on constipation. Having a bowel movement fewer than once every three days, straining on the toilet, feeling like the bowel hasn’t emptied, or passing stool that is hard are all signs of constipation.

Constipation is common and most people experience it at some point in their lives. Some cases of being stopped up for a time are a result of dietary issues, such as not eating enough fiber or not drinking enough water. For some, however, constipation can be a chronic problem. Chronic constipation has a variety of causes, including the use of some medications or a functional problem such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Constipation is uncomfortable and can cause a significant amount of worry and stress.

In cases of uncomplicated constipation, taking in more exercise, adding dietary fiber, and drinking more water can help relieve the problem. Over-the-counter laxatives and enemas are also used to treat constipation, but care should be taken in their use as some can worsen constipation by causing the bowel to become dependent on them to pass stool. However, because constipation can be the result of a serious underlying medical issue or a side effect of a medication, when it becomes more than a once in a while a problem it should be discussed with a physician.

Ignoring the Urge "To Go"

Constipation is not the same as ignoring the need to move the bowels. Food is broken down and used in the digestive tract until it passes all the way through the small and large intestine and is stored in the rectum as stool.

The body has a system for sending a signal when the rectum is full and needs to be emptied. It’s possible to ignore this sensation for a time, and perhaps put off a trip to the bathroom until there’s a more opportune moment. Waiting to go to the bathroom once in a while won’t do any permanent harm, but it shouldn’t become a habit because doing this too often can have an effect on the body. Holding in stool for so long that it creates a problem is rare in adults but more common in children, especially toddlers.

Holding in stool for too long could lead to hard stool, which can make a bowel movement more difficult and uncomfortable. The longer a stool is held in the rectum the more water is absorbed from it, making the stool harder and therefore more difficult to pass. Passing hard stools are associated with fissures, which are tears in the anal canal. Fissures can be quite painful, can bleed, and may take some time to heal, which is why it’s important to go to the bathroom when the urge strikes and not delay too long. Any blood seen in or on the stool should always be a reason to see a physician, even if it's thought to be a fissure.

Our bodies have a built-in system called the gastrocolic reflex that brings on an urge to pass a bowel movement after eating. It's most prevalent in children, who often use the toilet after a meal, but then becomes less common as we grow into adults (although some still have the urge to pass stool after a meal).

Adults have work or school obligations that translate into ignoring the urge to move the bowels when it’s inconvenient or when there’s nowhere to go. Scheduling bowel movements may help in avoiding a problem with having to go when adult schedules get in the way. Training the body to use the toilet at the same time each day, such as first thing in the morning, can be beneficial for people who are coping with constipation. In cases where constipation is severe, undergoing bowel retraining with the guidance of a trained specialist can also be effective. The goal should be to have a bowel movements that are soft and easy to pass.

When Holding It Can Become a Problem 

In extreme cases, holding stool in repeatedly and for long periods of time could result in a loss of sensation. Over time the muscles in the rectum stretch and the feeling that one has when it’s time to empty the bowels will diminish, making it more difficult to know when to go to the bathroom. This, in turn, can lead to further difficulties with inadvertently holding in stool longer and potentially leading to hard stools and constipation. This condition will require treatment by a physician. However, this is not common in healthy adults and won't happen from occasionally holding in stool.

Withholding Stool in Children

It’s more common for children to hold in their stool, which they do for a variety of reasons. The age at which this tends to become a problem is at about two and a half and goes until about the age of six years. Some children don’t want to stop their play to have a bowel movement and instead will hold it (this is true for urinating as well, and sometimes leads to wetting).

In some cases, having a bout with constipation and a subsequent painful stool can cause a child to hold in their stool out of a fear of repeating the pain. In other cases, toilet training can be difficult and some children withhold a bowel movement for complex emotional reasons. This can all lead to hard stools and constipation, which reinforces the withholding behavior because bowel movements become painful events or because a bowel movement is associated with stress.

A pediatrician should be contacted in the case that a child withholds stool, cries during or after bowel movements, or has abdominal pain.

A Word From Verywell

Rest assured that in most cases, holding in a bowel movement and waiting for a more convenient time is not going to cause long-lasting harm. Most adults will find the need to delay going to the toilet for practical reasons, and as long as it doesn’t become a habit or there isn’t constipation present, it shouldn’t lead to any problems.

However, holding in stool for long periods of time or on a consistent basis could lead to hard stools or constipation, so the best option is to take time to have a bowel movement when the urge hits.

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