Sometimes, people need to poop, but the timing is socially inappropriate, or they feel embarrassed about pooping in a public place. Although holding in poop on occasion is not harmful, people who have a habit of doing this may develop constipation or more severe complications.
People who hold in their poop too often may start to lose the urge to poop, which may result in fecal incontinence. Other people may experience constipation. Constipation can be very uncomfortable, and it may lead to more severe problems.
In this article, we discuss the risks of holding in poop.
Occasionally holding in poop is not harmful. Sometimes people are either not close to a bathroom or in a situation where it is inappropriate to go to the bathroom. Others are too shy or embarrassed to poop in a public place and prefer to wait until they get home.
An older paper suggests that children who experience constipation may develop the habit of holding in their poop to avoid painful bowel movements. Some children may withhold their poop if they find toilet training too challenging.
When people develop stool-withholding behaviors, they are putting their health at risk.
People should pass stool when their body signals the presence of stool in the rectum. Although the timing may not always be appropriate, doctors recommend passing stool as soon as possible once the urge arises.
Avoiding passing poop may result in constipation. When this occurs, the lower intestine absorbs water from the stool that accumulates in the rectum. Stool with less water is more difficult to pass because it becomes hard.
In more severe situations, this behavior can lead to incontinence or cause severe issues, such as fecal impaction (when a hard, dry mass of stool becomes stuck in the colon or rectum) or gastrointestinal perforation (a hole in the wall of the gastrointestinal tract).
Holding in poop can also cause distension, or stretching, of the rectum. If the person loses sensation within the rectum — called rectal hyposensitivity, they may experience episodes of incontinence.
The author of a 2015 study suggests that an increased fecal load in the colon may increase bacterial counts and create long-term inflammation of the colon. This inflammation may increase the risk of developing colon cancer.
At birth, babies poop involuntarily. When a child begins toilet training, they learn to poop at a socially acceptable time and hold in their poop when necessary.
An older study suggests that toilet-training complications occur in about 2–3% of children.
Some children may withhold their stool after experiencing constipation. The memory of painful bowel movements can lead to a refusal to poop. As the child continues to hold their poop, their lower colon will accumulate stool until it is full.
With repeated withholding, the child may lose rectal sensations, which leads to irregularities in their urge to poop. When the rectum is full, softer stool may start to leak around the accumulated poop. With reduced sensation, the child may poop involuntarily.
People’s bowel movement schedules are different. Some people pass stool once every 2 days, whereas others poop multiple times per day. Pooping frequency depends on a person’s age and their diet, but most people will poop between one and three times per day.
A change in bowel movement scheduling may indicate constipation. These changes are subject to individual differences. For example, in people who usually pass stool once every 3 days, a normal, well-formed stool occurring once a week may not require medical attention.
People should pass stool when their body signals the need for a bowel movement. If the timing is inappropriate, they should try to pass stool as soon as possible.
There have been reports of extreme cases where withholding stool through constipation or physical effort has resulted in severe complications.
In one example, a young woman from the United Kingdom passed away after 8 weeks of not going to the toilet, according to the BBC. The stool caused her intestines to enlarge so significantly that they pressed on her organs and led to a heart attack.
In another example that featured in BMJ Case Reports, a man experienced paralysis in one leg and abdominal compartment syndrome (a potentially life threatening condition resulting from increased pressure in the abdomen) due to severe constipation.
It is not advisable for a person to hold in their poop. However, if they find themselves in a situation in which it is inappropriate to poop, or they are unable to get to a restroom, they may be able to control the relevant muscles until it is an acceptable time to poop.
People may be able to do the following to help hold it in until they can use a toilet:
- Relax the rectal wall: By relaxing this muscle, the need to poop may temporarily go away.
- Avoid tensing the abdomen: This tension is one mechanism that helps push stool out of the anus and rectum.
- Clench the butt muscles together: Doing this may help keep the rectum muscles tense.
- Avoid squatting: Try standing or lying down instead. These are not natural positions in which to have a bowel movement, so they may “trick” the body into not needing to poop.
Although it may be difficult to track regular bowel movement patterns in a toddler, parents or caregivers should consult a pediatrician if they see signs that a child is withholding stool.
A pediatrician can help train them and the child on appropriate bathroom behaviors and habits.
People experiencing constipation because they regularly hold their poop can consult a pharmacist for advice on how to prevent constipation. Pharmacists can recommend the most appropriate over-the-counter laxatives.
Once a person losses rectal sensation, they need medical attention.
People might hold in their poop because it is a socially inappropriate time to go, or they are not close to a bathroom. Holding in poop occasionally is not dangerous, but if it becomes a habit, people may experience health effects.
Constipation is common in people who hold in their poop. Children who have experienced constipation sometimes develop this withholding behavior to avoid the pain associated with passing hard stool.
In severe cases, people who chronically hold in their poop may lose the sensation of the urge to poop or develop severe intestinal complications.