Q: What is stool softener? Is it okay to use one for long periods?
A: This over-the-counter product works in the large intestine to make stool less hard and dry, so that bowel movements are easier and take place without straining. The active ingredient, called docusate, is safe, not habituating, and can be taken long-term. It is modestly effective, at best. Some stimulant laxatives contain a stool softener as well.
Doctors sometimes suggest stool softener in cases where straining to have a bowel movement is not advisable—such as for people with chronic constipation, anal fissures, hemorrhoids or heart disease. Don’t take mineral oil if you’re taking a stool softener (we don’t recommend mineral oil, in any case).
If you often are constipated and/or have to strain to move your bowels, you may need medical evaluation and other kinds of treatment.