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Definition:

A laxative is a medication used to produce bowel movements. Laxative overdose occurs when someone accidentally or intentionally takes more than the normal or recommended amount of this medication.

Most laxative overdoses in children are accidental. However, some people abuse laxatives by regularly taking overdoses in an effort to lose weight.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.



Alternative Names:

Laxative abuse



Poisonous Ingredient:
  • Bisacodyl
  • Carboxymethylcellulose
  • Cascara sagrada
  • Casanthranol
  • Castor oil
  • Dehydrocholic acid
  • Docusate
  • Glycerin
  • Lactulose
  • Magnesium citrate
  • Magnesium hydroxide
  • Magnesium oxide
  • Magnesium sulfate
  • Malt soup extract
  • Methylcellulose
  • Milk of magnesia
  • Mineral oil
  • Phenolphthalein
  • Poloxamer 188
  • Polycarbophil
  • Potassium bitartrate and sodium bicarbonate
  • Psyllium
  • Psyllium hydrophilic mucilloid
  • Senna
  • Sennosides
  • Sodium phosphate
Note: This list may not be all-inclusive.

Where Found:
  • Bisacodyl (Dulcolax)
  • Cascara sagrada
  • Castor oil
  • Docusate (Colace)
  • Docusate and phenolphthalein (Correctol)
  • Glycerin suppositories
  • Lactulose (Duphalac)
  • Magnesium citrate
  • Malt soup extract (Maltsupex)
  • Methylcellulose
  • Milk of magnesia
  • Mineral oil
  • Phenolphthalein (Ex Lax)
  • Psyllium
  • Senna
Note: This list may not be all-inclusive.

Symptoms:

Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, are most common. Dehydration and electrolyte problems are more common in children than adults. Below are symptoms specific to the actual product.

Bisacodyl:

  • Cramps
  • Diarrhea

Senna; Cascara sagrada:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloody stools
  • Collapse
  • Diarrhea

Phenolphthalein:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Collapse
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar
  • Rash

Sodium phosphate:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Collapse
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Vomiting

Magnesium-containing products:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Collapse
  • Coma
  • Death
  • Diarrhea (watery)
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Flushing
  • Gastrointestinal irritation
  • Muscle weakness
  • Painful bowel movements
  • Painful urination
  • Slowed breathing
  • Thirst
  • Vomiting

Castor oil can cause gastrointestinal irritation.

Mineral oil can cause aspiration pneumonia, a condition where vomited stomach contents are inhaled.

Products containing methylcellulose, carboxymethylcellulose, polycarbophil, or psyllium may cause choking or intestinal blockage if they are not taken with plenty of fluids.



Home Treatment:

Seek immediate medical help. Do NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.



Before Calling Emergency:

Determine the following information:

  • Patient's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (ingredients and strengths if known)
  • When it was swallowed
  • The amount swallowed


Poison Control, or a local emergency number:

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.

See: Poison control center - emergency number



What to expect at the emergency room:

The health care provider will measure and monitor the patient's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, heart function, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The patient may receive:

  • Activated charcoal
  • Blood tests to determine electrolyte levels
  • Fluids and electrolytes through an IV


Expectations (prognosis):

How well a patient does depends on the type of laxative swallowed, how much was swallowed, and how much time passed before treatment was received.

Serious symptoms are most likely in patients who abuse laxatives by taking large amounts to lose weight. First time laxative overdoses are rarely serious.



References:

Ford MD, et al. Clinical Toxicology. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders; 2001:332-333.

Feldman M, Friedman LS, Sleisenger MH, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran’s Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders; 2002:149.




Review Date: 2/3/2009
Reviewed By: A.D.A.M. Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Greg Juhn, MTPW, David R. Eltz. Previously reviewed by Eric Perez, MD, Department of Emergency Medicine, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network (10/29/2007).

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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789 Central Avenue, Dover, NH 03820
Phone: (603) 742-5252
Toll free: 1 (877) 201-7100