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What Is the Difference between an Enema and Suppository?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Understanding the distinction between a suppository and an enema is crucial for effective constipation relief. While both serve similar purposes, their applications and mechanisms differ significantly. A suppository, typically glycerin-based, is a solid or semi-solid medication inserted into the rectum, where it dissolves or melts to exert its effect. On the other hand, an enema involves introducing a liquid solution into the rectum via a nozzle to stimulate bowel movements, often used before medical procedures or for occasional constipation relief. 

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) notes that enemas can be part of the bowel preparation for diagnostic procedures like colonoscopies. When comparing a suppository vs enema, it's essential to consider the specific circumstances and recommendations of healthcare professionals.

In most cases an enema and suppository are used for very similar things and work in a very similar way. Both the liquid found in an enema and the glycerin in laxative suppositories work to lubricate hardened stools so that they pass more easily. Enemas generally work more effectively at cleaning out the entire colon, as they have a farther reach and contain more medication with each use. Suppository laxatives, however, are generally safer and can be used for a longer period with fewer side effects. Glycerin, although a solid, quickly melts once inside the rectum and provides lubrication for hard to pass stools.

It is important that patients do not use an enema and suppository at the same time unless directed by a doctor. Enemas can cause damage to the colon if performed too often. Suppositories are not generally absorbed by the body, but they do cause rectal stimulation, and this can lead to problems of its own. If the rectal area is stimulated with a suppository too often, it may become difficult to pass stools without the added stimulus. This can lead to dependence on suppository laxatives.

Both an enema and suppository may be used for different things. The same type of bag and nozzle device used for the relief of constipation may also be used for feminine douching or to perform a vaginal rinse for infections. Suppositories can contain various types of medication and may be used to treat certain other illnesses or conditions, primarily nausea when an oral medication will not stay down.

If symptoms of constipation persist or become worse, patients should discontinue use of all medications and consult a doctor. In most cases, suppositories are symptom-free other than mild discomfort just after insertion. Enemas may cause mild abdominal cramping and strong urge to evacuate the bowels. Neither treatment should be used if constipation is accompanied by severe abdominal cramps, blood in the stools, nausea, vomiting, or fever without consulting a physician.

Many people use the terms enema and suppository interchangeably. They can have similar applications and outcomes, but they work differently. Knowing how they differ helps you find the right solution.

Enemas inject liquid into your rectum to stimulate your bowels. They’re often used to relieve constipation.

A suppository is a pill or plug inserted into your rectum, urethra, or vagina. It melts with your body heat and administers the contained medicine to your entire body system.

What Is an Enema?

There are two broad types of enemas: cleansing and retention. A cleansing enema is an injection that stimulates bowel movements. It’s most commonly used to help someone who can’t get relief from constipation.

Medical professionals can administer retention enemas. For example, proctoclysis is a way to rehydrate people who can’t use intravenous therapy. Retention enemas typically stay in your system for about 15 minutes before being flushed out. This period ensures enough time for vitamins, minerals, or medication to enter your system.

How to Administer an Enema

You can give yourself an enema at home by following the instructions exactly. However, be careful with self-administration and ensure you’re using new or sterilized tools. If not, you could introduce harmful bacteria into your bowels.

Relax as much as possible before giving yourself an enema. Follow the instructions and move slowly to prevent damage to your rectum or colon. If you’re doing it properly, you won’t feel any pain—just some minor discomfort until you have a bowel movement.

Possible Side Effects of an Enema

People experiencing constipation can use an enema to promote a bowel movement. Other people find that enemas help flush toxins from their systems, though there’s no medical proof to support this. Regardless of your reasons for using an enema, you don’t want to do it too often.

Using enemas interrupts your body’s systems. You’re introducing new substances to your body, disrupting your gut health, and throwing off your typical bowel movement schedule.

Some enema solutions include ingredients that irritate your bowels to promote movement. This approach is effective in extreme moderation, but some acidic contents can damage your bowel if you use them too often.

What Is a Suppository?

Suppositories can relieve constipation, which is why many people associate them with enemas. However, some suppositories have different functions, and you don’t insert every type into the rectum.

In the medical field, a suppository is a common way to administer medication. Instead of taking a pill or getting a shot, you can insert a suppository in your rectum, vagina, or urethra. The gelatin or cocoa butter coating dissolves with your body heat and sends the medication into your system.

It might not seem like the preferred way to take medication, but it’s ideal for substances that are tough to swallow or don’t get absorbed thoroughly in other methods.

How to Administer a Suppository

Before inserting a suppository, you should try to empty your bowels completely. This step ensures you’ll have more time to absorb the medication before needing to have a bowel movement. If you don’t defecate before inserting a suppository, the stimulation might cause you to have a bowel movement and lose the medication.

You can add a lubricant to the suppository to insert it gently. The lubricant won’t negatively impact the delivery of the medication. Put your leg up on a chair or lie on your side to smoothly insert the suppository into your rectum. Stay still for at least 15 minutes to give it time to dissolve.

Possible Side Effects of a Suppository

Suppositories aren’t meant to be used often, so there are fewer associated side effects. However, you should know that some of the medication might leak out if you move too quickly after inserting a suppository so that you won’t get the full effect. It’s also possible to experience irritation when you insert a suppository.

What Should You Choose: Enema or Suppository?

Deciding between an enema or a suppository is a personal choice. You might be more comfortable with one compared to the other. Keep in mind that you can use either option if you’re treating constipation. But for medical suppositories, you’ll want to check with your doctor before use. Professionals can advise you as to which option is most effective.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1000204 — On Jul 01, 2018

Chemotherapy made it impossible to keep medicine down when taken orally. Believe me, if the choice is experiencing all the side effects of adryomicin and cytoxan or messing around with a suppository, you would most likely choose the latter. I did. Now, multi organ prolapse causing constipation and painful bowel movements, I find my opinion has not changed.

By anon312603 — On Jan 08, 2013

I have to be completely honest: I really think that people should try the Dr. Max Powers 15 Day Cleanse. Before I started taking this, I would spend 30 minutes on the toilet, and I never felt like I was actually evacuating my bowels, rather I was just pushing a little out at a time. My BMs were not formed well, were extremely soft, and never completely came out, until I took this.

The first time, yes, the first time I went after I took this, It was like a little slice of heaven. I used one wipe from the TP instead of my typical 20, and I got up and looked in the bowl and almost cried. I was amazed at how much came out. Plus, my stomach is no longer cramping, which is most excellent.

By sunnySkys — On Jun 15, 2012

It's very interesting that suppositories can be used to administer medication, rather than just help people who are constipated. This doesn't sound altogether pleasant, but I guess it's necessary if you just can't keep food down!

Suppositories can also be used to treat vaginal infections, which of course makes sense. However, I would caution people against using the same bag and nozzle for douching that they use to relieve constipation.

First of all, douching isn't very good for you. It disrupts your vaginal PH and can actually cause infections. Second of all, if you didn't clean the nozzle well enough, I think you could give yourself another infection!

By JessicaLynn — On Jun 14, 2012

I think this article is right to caution people against becoming dependent on enemas or suppositories to help themselves go to the bathroom. You can definitely overuse both of those things to the point where you can't go without them!

However, the same caution is true of an over the counter laxative. Overuse of those can also cause dependence!

I think if you're constipated a lot, you should definitely look to your diet and try to solve the problem, rather than just treating the symptom. Make sure you're getting enough water (this is key) and fresh fruits and vegetables.

By starrynight — On Jun 14, 2012

@ddljohn - That's funny, because I would vastly prefer to take a medicine for constipation orally, rather than messing around with a suppository or colonic enema. I think it's much, much easier.

Usually I try something herbal like senna tea, and if that doesn't work I'll use an over the counter laxative. You can usually take those right before bed and go to the bathroom in the morning. I find that much more convenient than having to sit in the bathroom for an hour or more after using an enema or a suppository!

By wavy58 — On Jun 14, 2012

I wouldn't want to take anything that caused painful cramps and gas. That has always been my issue with regular pill laxatives. It's hard to find one that doesn't cause just as much pain as the actual constipation does.

So, I choose suppositories over pill laxatives and enemas. Constipation is not a frequent issue for me, so I don't worry about becoming dependent.

When it does happen, though, I do realize that I need help with it. I'm not just going to wait and see if it resolves itself, because generally, it won't. I go buy a box of suppositories and take care of it promptly.

By ddljohn — On Jun 13, 2012

@feruze-- I don't see much of a difference between enemas and suppositories. I think both are better options than taking powder or pill laxatives by mouth. I believe that there is less risk of dependence with enemas and suppositories because people are not likely to use these every day.

Whether you use an enema or a suppository, you will have some discomfort. But if used properly, they don't cause pain. Enemas and suppositories work the same way, by attracting water into stool to initiate a bowel movement. It's true that enemas work faster, they generally take only a few minutes. Suppositories can take up to an hour. No matter which you use though, it's a very good idea to stay home so you can rush to the bathroom when you need to.

Commercial enemas and suppositories also contain the same ingredients. Enemas contain mineral oil plus a laxative. Suppositories contain glycerin plus a laxative. Mineral oil and glycerin is the same thing, glycerin is just more solid. Homemade enemas use a more variety of ingredients. Warm water, enema soap and milk are commonly used in homemade enemas.

By candyquilt — On Jun 13, 2012

@feruze-- From my experience, enemas do cause more discomfort than suppositories. They don't cause pain necessarily, but depending on the type of enema, it can cause bloating and gas anywhere from a couple of hours to more than a day. But they do work a lot faster than suppositories do.

Especially the glycerin suppositories don't really help you empty your bowels, they just make it less painful when it happens. An enema on the other hand will make you empty your bowels and that too fairly quickly. I think enemas are a much better way to clear up the bowels, whether it's in preparation for surgery or detoxification.

The downside is that you will likely be in the bathroom for a while and will experience some bloating and gas. I use a homemade enema with molasses and milk occasionally. And this enema does cause a lot of gas and sometimes mild cramping while it works.

By bear78 — On Jun 13, 2012

What's the difference between an enema and suppository in terms of effectiveness and pain or discomfort?

I've used glycerin suppositories a couple of times. It wasn't bad, a little uncomfortable initially as the article said. But it doesn't work right away either, it takes a couple of hours if not more.

I've never used an enema but have heard that they can cause a lot of discomfort. Is it painful? How fast does it work?

Which do people prefer for treating constipation?

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