Are Senna based laxatives safe when used as long term treatment for constipation in children?

J Pediatr Surg. 2018 Apr;53(4):722-727. doi: 10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2018.01.002. Epub 2018 Jan 31.


Background and aim: Senna is a stimulant laxative commonly used by pediatricians, pediatric gastroenterologists, and pediatric surgeons. Many clinicians avoid Senna for reasons such as tolerance or side effects but this has little scientific justification. We recently found several patients we were caring for developed perineal blistering during the course of Senna treatment. Because of this we chose to review the literature to identify side effects in children taking this medication as well as to analyze our Center's experience with Senna's secondary effects.

Methods: We performed a literature review (MEDLINE, PUBMED) using the keywords of Senna, sen, sennosides and children, and pediatric and functional (idiopathic) constipation. We looked for articles with information regarding perineal blisters related to Senna as well as other secondary effects of Senna laxatives in children when used on a long-term basis. We also reviewed the charts of our patients who had previously taken Senna or are currently taking Senna, looking for adverse reactions.

Results: Eight articles in the literature reported perineal blisters after administration of Senna laxatives in 28 patients. Of those occurrences, 18 patients (64%) had accidental administration of Senna and 10 (36%) had Senna prescribed as a long term treatment. All of the blistering episodes were related to high dose, night-time accidents, or intense diarrhea with a long period of stool to skin contact. At our institution, from 2014 to 2017, we prescribed Senna and have recorded data to 640 patients. During the study period, 17 patients (2.2%) developed blisters during their treatment. Patients who developed blisters had higher doses 60mg/day; 60 [12-100] vs. 17.5 [1.7-150] (p<0.001). All of the blistering episodes were related to night-time accidents, with a long period of stool to skin contact. 83 (13%) patients presented minor side effects such as abdominal cramping, vomiting or diarrhea which resolved once the type of laxatives were changed or enemas were started. The doses of Senna was not significantly different in these patients 15mg/day [4.4-150] vs. 17.5mg/day [1.5-150]. There were no other long-term side effects from Senna found in the pediatric literature for long-term treatment besides abdominal cramping or diarrhea during the first weeks of administration. We found no evidence of tolerance to Senna in our review.

Conclusion: There is a paucity of information in the literature regarding side effects of sennosides as a long-term therapy, and to our knowledge, this is the first review of Senna side effects in children. Senna induced dermatitis is rare, but may occur when patients need a higher dose. All of the cases described had a long period of exposure of the skin to stool. Besides the perineal rash with blisters, we could find no other described major side effect with Senna administration in the pediatric population or evidence of the frequently mentioned concern of the development of tolerance to Senna. Pediatric caregivers should advise families of the rare side effect of skin blistering and educate them to change the diaper frequently in children who are not toilet- trained to reduce stool to skin exposure. We can conclude from this review that Senna is a safe treatment option for constipation in children.

Level of evidence: IV.

Keywords: Constipation children; Senna; Senna blisters; Senna side effects; Sennosides safety; Stimulant laxatives side effects.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Constipation / drug therapy*
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Humans
  • Laxatives / adverse effects*
  • Laxatives / therapeutic use
  • Phytotherapy / adverse effects*
  • Phytotherapy / methods
  • Senna Extract / adverse effects*
  • Senna Extract / therapeutic use
  • Senna Plant / adverse effects*


  • Laxatives
  • Senna Extract