Adverse effects of laxatives

Dis Colon Rectum. 2001 Aug;44(8):1201-9. doi: 10.1007/BF02234645.


Laxatives are among the most commonly used drugs or additives. Most are quite safe when used judiciously, intermittently when possible, and in the absence of contraindications. Bulking agents and nonabsorbable compounds such as lactulose can cause bloating but have very few serious adverse effects except for the allergic reaction to psyllium preparations. Osmotic laxatives containing poorly absorbable ions such as magnesium or phosphate can cause metabolic disturbances, particularly in the presence of renal impairment. However, if taken intermittently, in the absence of conditions such as ileus or bowel obstruction, they have few adverse effects. Polyethylene glycol solutions are emerging as an effective and safe mode of treatment for chronic constipation. Of stimulant laxatives, senna compounds and bisacodyl are the most commonly used. Although there are data to support the neoplastic potential of this class of drugs in in vitro studies, epidemiologic data in humans so far has not established a clear link between these laxatives and colonic neoplasia. The link between stimulant laxatives and structural changes, such as the "cathartic colon" or enteric nerve damage, is not well established either. Danthron compounds should be avoided because of hepatotoxicity.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cathartics / adverse effects*
  • Colon / drug effects
  • Colon / pathology
  • Constipation / drug therapy
  • Constipation / etiology
  • Constipation / pathology
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors


  • Cathartics