Laxative abuse can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, organ damage, and dependence. Anyone who misuses laxatives should seek medical advice.

Laxatives are a convenient solution for addressing occasional constipation or related discomfort. Options such as sennosides (Senokot, Ex-lax, Senna) and others are readily available over the counter without a prescription.

Although laxatives are safe for occasional and legitimate use, there exists potential for misuse. Some individuals may use laxatives excessively in an attempt to lose weight. However, laxatives are ineffective for this purpose and can cause potentially serious side effects. These can include chronic constipation, heart problems, and an increased colon cancer risk.

Continue reading to learn more about laxative misuse, including the consequences and how to find help.

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People misuse laxatives under the mistaken premise they can support rapid weight loss. The misconception stems from the false notion that laxatives can expel calories from the body before the digestive system absorbs them. However, this is untrue as laxatives act on the large intestine. By the time food reaches this point, the body has already absorbed most calories.

People may feel that laxatives help them lose weight. This is because laxatives induce bowel movements that contain liquids, minerals, electrolytes, and indigestible fiber. As a result, the number on the scale may be lower. However, the “water weight” returns when the person drinks any fluids and the body rehydrates.

Laxative misuse is a feature of the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. Besides purging with laxatives, a person with bulimia nervosa may also:

  • induce vomiting
  • misuse water pills (diuretics)
  • exercise excessively
  • fast for long periods

Learn more about bulimia nervosa.

Help is available

Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.

Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.

For general mental health support at any time, people can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24 hours a day at 1-800-662-4357 (or 1-800-487-4889 for TTY).

Many other resources are also available, including:

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Laxative misuse can lead to a range of consequences. Some issues are potentially life threatening and can profoundly impact a person’s health.

Details are below:


Frequent laxative use can lead to dehydration due to excessive fluid loss. Symptoms may include:

  • dry mouth
  • extreme thirst
  • reduced urine output

In severe cases, dehydration can lead to death.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Laxative misuse may also lead to IBS and symptoms such as:

  • recurring abdominal discomfort
  • cramping
  • bloating
  • diarrhea

Electrolyte imbalances

Using laxatives can cause diarrhea and loss of vital electrolytes, such as potassium, sodium, and magnesium. This can disrupt normal bodily functions and cause symptoms, including:


Long-term laxative misuse can lead to physical dependence, where the body relies on these agents for regular bowel movements.

Over time, the colon may stop reacting to the usual laxative dose, necessitating increasingly larger doses to produce bowel movements. This can exacerbate the cycle of misuse.

Organ damage

Prolonged and excessive laxative use can cause lasting damage to internal organs.

They can disrupt the natural muscle tone of the colon, leading to a condition known as “lazy” or atonic colon. In this state, the organ becomes less responsive to normal signals for bowel movements. This can potentially result in chronic constipation even after laxative cessation.

Furthermore, the repeated and forceful expulsion of stool can cause physical trauma to the colon lining. This trauma may create openings or tears in the delicate mucus membrane, increasing the risk of bacterial infections.

Rarely, chronic laxative misuse can also lead to liver and kidney damage and an increased risk of colon cancer.

In certain situations, laxative misuse leads to a medical emergency. People should seek emergency assistance if they experience the following:

  • fainting or dizziness
  • severe dehydration
  • chest pain or irregular heartbeat
  • seizures

A comprehensive approach including medical, psychological, and supportive measures is necessary to treat laxative misuse.

Individuals will require the support of a team of health professionals with expertise in treating eating disorders. The team may include:

  • physicians
  • psychiatrists
  • therapists
  • dieticians

Support from close friends and family is also valuable.

Treatment involves:


Central to the treatment process is the cessation of laxative use safely and effectively. This may involve gradually reducing laxative use to minimize withdrawal issues while closely monitoring progress.

Psychological intervention

Because of the established link between laxative misuse and eating disorders, psychological interventions are necessary. These include therapy and counseling. The aim may be to uncover what is driving the behavior.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common approach that helps individuals identify and change harmful thought patterns and behaviors.

Supportive care

Supportive measures may include the following:

  • electrolyte replacement
  • fluid rehydration
  • medications to alleviate digestive distress

These can help manage any physical complications of laxative misuse.

People may falsely believe that using laxatives can help them lose weight. For this reason, people with eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa may misuse laxatives in addition to vomiting and fasting.

Laxative misuse can lead to severe health consequences, including dehydration, organ damage, and dependence. Sometimes, these can be life threatening.

Treatment for laxative misuse involves a comprehensive approach. This includes stopping laxative use, psychological intervention, and supportive care.