Chronic functional constipation is common in infants, and the bacterial composition of stools in this condition is not known. The study aims were to: (i) investigate the composition of the intestinal ecosystem in chronic functional constipation; (ii) establish whether the addition of the water-holding agent calcium polycarbophil to the diet induces an improvement in constipation; and (iii) determine the composition of the intestinal ecosystem after the use of this agent. In total, 42 children (20F, 22M; mean age: 8.6 +/- 2.9 y) were studied. Twenty-eight children with functional chronic constipation without anatomical disorders were treated double-blind in random sequence for 1 month with an oral preparation of calcium polycarbophil (0.62 g/twice daily) or placebo. Intestinal flora composition was evaluated by standard microbiological methods and biochemical assays on faecal samples collected before and after treatment. Fourteen healthy children were studied as controls. The results show that (i) the constipated children presented a significant increase in clostridia and bifidobacteria in faeces compared to healthy subjects--different species of clostridia and enterobacteriaceae were frequently isolated; no generalized overgrowth was observed; Clostridia outnumbered bacteroides and E. coli mean counts by 2-3log, while bacteroides and E. coli counts were similar (5-6 log10/g fresh faeces); these intestinal disturbances could be defined as a dysbiosis, i.e. a quantitative alteration in the relative proportions of certain intestinal bacterial species. (ii) Clinical resolution of constipation was achieved only in 43% of treated children and an improvement in 21% (one bowel movement every 2 d). (iii) Calcium polycarbophil treatment induced no significant changes in the composition of the intestinal ecosystem, nor in blood chemistry parameters.