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What is a Purgative?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A purgative is a medication that encourages bowel movements. Also known as laxatives, purgatives are available over the counter in many regions and stronger versions can be provided by prescription. There are a number of medical uses for these drugs, ranging from the treatment of constipation to a need to clean the bowel out as much as possible prior to a medical procedure. It is important to follow directions carefully because these medications can induce diarrhea in patients.

Purgatives can work in a number of ways. Some create bulk, making it easier for stool to move through the intestines. Others hydrate the stool in case dryness is causing blockages. A purgative can also act as an irritant to trigger the bowel into voiding. Stronger medications tend to be restricted to prescription use so that people do not endanger themselves by taking too much or taking the medication when it is not indicated.

When people have constipation, a purgative may be the first line treatment to see if the stool can be loosened enough to get the patient defecating normally. If the patient's constipation does not resolve, treatments like digital extraction may be offered. People with a history of constipation may make a point of eating purgative foods like high fiber foods in order to keep their bowels working smoothly, with the goal of preventing future episodes of constipation.

Patients who are preparing for medical procedures like endoscopy in the bowels, medical imaging studies, and certain types of surgeries may be asked to take purgatives. The drugs are designed to clean out the bowels to make these procedures easier to perform. In addition to improving hygiene, clean bowels are also easier to work with for many types of procedures. Purgatives offered in advance of medical procedures can be very strong.

Everyone responds to purgatives differently. When taking a new medication for the first time, it is advisable to take the medication in close proximity to a bathroom and to avoid making plans to go out for several hours. Sometimes people have multiple bowel movements after taking a purgative and the urge to defecate can be very strong; imperfect bowel control can occur and people may defecate on themselves if they cannot reach a bathroom in time. It is also important to keep purgatives out of reach of pets and other members of the household to avoid accidental ingestion of strong medication and subsequent unfortunate accidents.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon924984 — On Jan 09, 2014

There are no quick fixes to weight loss. Living in the 21st century and being a woman I am stunned that you still don't get it.

By ceilingcat — On Jul 24, 2011

@starrynight - I never knew they made laxatives for pets, but then again why wouldn't they? I'm glad your cat is feeling better now, but it sounds like he had a rough time!

As far as human laxatives go, I can't recommend herbal remedies enough. A good friend of mine suffers from this particular problem, and she swears by senna tea. She says it's pretty gentle, but strong enough to get everything moving again.

By starrynight — On Jul 23, 2011

It is a very good idea to keep laxatives out of the reach of children and pets. However, they actually make pet specific purgatives too!

I found this out recently because my cat was having some bowel issues. He was feeling ill for another reason, so he stopped eating and pooping. He ended up being really backed up so the vet prescribed him a pet laxative.

Unfortunately, the laxative didn't completely work. My poor cat ended up having to have a few enemas, and eventually a digital extraction.

He's back to normal now, but I'll tell you, I've never been so happy to have to clean the litter box before!

By animegal — On Jul 22, 2011

Does anyone know if purgatives are safe to use if you need a quick fix for weight loss?

I have a wedding coming up and I really need to slim down quickly to make my dress fit in a more flattering matter and I am running out of time. One of my friends recommended I try purgatives and I am not sure if it is a good idea or not.

I haven't used any purgatives before though I have been sick a few times which caused me to have to run to the bathroom a lot. It wasn't a very fun experience but I am willing to go through it for a few days if it actually works.

By manykitties2 — On Jul 22, 2011

If you are prescribed a purgative before having an endoscopy in the bowels make sure you are as close to the bathroom as possible. I was shocked at how fast my poor stomach started rumbling and I nearly had an accident.

One of the worst things about the purgative was that it makes you go several time in what seems like a very short span of time. I felt like I had a horrible stomach flu that was wrecking havoc in my bowels.

Cramping can also be a big problem with a purgative, as you feel like your lower stomach is in a vice. If you are really worried about this aspect I would suggest drinking a lot of water, as it helps.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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