Docusate sodium is a stool softener used to treat constipation in cases when the primary problem is hard, dry stool. Physicians also prescribe a stool softener for heart patients and post-operative patients to prevent constipation and the straining during bowel movements that may result. Docusate works by decreasing the surface tension of fecal matter in the bowel, which allows water and fat to be absorbed into the stool. This makes the stool softer and easier to pass during a bowel movement.
A frequent side effect you may experience while taking docusate sodium is mild abdominal cramping and bloating. If these symptoms persist or increase in severity, you should stop taking docusate and see a doctor. The National Institutes of Health warns that a more serious condition may exist, and taking a stool softener can exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders such as bowel obstruction.
Passage of a large, soft stool, the desired result of taking docusate sodium, normally occurs in 24 to 72 hours. However, diarrhea is a common negative side effect that you could experience. The authors of "Pearson Nurse's Drug Guide 2011" advise that you should report diarrhea to your physician and, if this symptom is persistent or accompanied by abdominal pain, you may have to discontinue the drug. Diarrhea could indicate an intolerance to docusate sodium or the presence of a more serious problem such as a bowel obstruction or fecal impaction.
Docusate sodium comes as a tablet, a capsule, a liquid or a syrup. These oral preparations create a bitter taste that may deter you from taking the medication. MayoClinic.com suggests you drink a full glass of water when taking docusate capsules and pills and advises mixing liquid preparations with 4 oz. of milk or juice to mask the bitter taste. Drinking lots of fluids when taking this stool softener offers another benefit: increased fluid intake improves the effectiveness of the drug.
The syrup preparation of docusate sodium is associated with throat irritation. Although a rare adverse side effect, if you experience throat irritation you may elect an alternate route of administration. Unfortunately, docusate sodium syrup cannot be mixed with milk or juice to make it more palatable and less irritating.
Long-term use of stool softeners like docusate sodium should be avoided as it leads to dependence. Excessive or prolonged use interferes with normal bowel function, and use of stool softeners should not take the place of healthy lifestyle practices that promote regular bowel movements. For example, you should drink at least 64 oz. of fluids daily -- unless you're on a physician-imposed fluid restriction -- exercise routinely and eat a fiber-rich diet to help prevent constipation.