The Difference Between a Laxative & Stool Softener

Your body relies on the nutrients from the foods you eat for survival. Mechanical and chemical processes break food down into molecules that are absorbed through your intestines, and the resulting waste is eliminated during a bowel movement. Constipation results from this normal process slowing down and causing additional symptoms. Laxatives or a stool softener help relieve these symptoms.

The Digestive System

Breakdown of food is accomplished through mechanical and chemical processes. First, your teeth break the food down into small portions for swallowing down the esophagus and into the stomach, where churning with chemicals breaks it down further. The food is then pushed through the small intestine, where digestive enzymes from the gallbladder and pancreas break the food down into small nutrient molecules that can be easily absorbed. By the end of the journey through the large intestine, the food material is stripped of nutrients and water, leaving only a mass of waste product called stool waiting to be eliminated.


Constipation is defined as infrequent bowel movements, hard stool or a sense of incomplete emptying after a bowel movement. According to, medically speaking constipation is defined as fewer than three bowel movements per week and severe constipation less than one per week. (See Reference 2) Causes include dehydration, lack of high-fiber foods in your diet, retaining stool after you feel the urge to have a bowel movement, hormonal disorders and medications such as narcotic pain relievers and anti-depression drugs. Constipation causes symptoms of nausea, bloating and cramping. Left untreated symptoms can worsen to rectal bleeding, vomiting and unhealthy weight loss. Treatment starts with consuming naturally occurring fiber foods, increasing fluid intake or using stool softeners or laxatives.


To assist with passing stool during constipation you might use a laxative to stimulate the intestines to eliminate waste. Laxatives come in different forms. Bulk-forming laxatives are not digested. Instead they form a bulky mass that stimulates your bowels to move. Polymer, saline and lactulose laxatives work by drawing moisture into the bowel from surrounding tissue, creating a soft bulky stool that stimulates movement. Lubricant laxatives coat the inner lining of the colon, preventing moisture from being absorbed and making the passage of stool easier. Stimulant laxatives act directly on the colon wall by stimulating muscle contraction of the muscles moving the stool along.

Stool Softeners

Stool softeners can be considered laxatives but they are not used to cause you to have a bowel movement. Instead, they allow you to have one by softening the stool mass itself. According to Medline Plus, a stool softener is used on a short-term basis to relieve constipation for people who should avoid straining. The ingredients do not stimulate a bowel movement or irritate the bowel wall. They are helpful for people with heart conditions, or after pelvis or rectal surgery or childbirth.

Side Effects

Because of the side effects associated with taking them, laxatives and stool softeners should only be used for short-term relief of constipation discomfort. According to, side effects of laxative use include belching, diarrhea, cramping, gas and nausea. Habitual use of them could result in excessive thirst, weakness, muscle cramping, difficulty swallowing, itchy skin rash, difficulty breathing and even paralysis. You also risk another condition to where your GI tract becomes dependent on you taking the laxative or stool softener to have a bowel movement. Seek medical attention if you experience any of these situations.

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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