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.