Stimulant laxatives (bisacodyl, senna and sennosides, sodium picosulfate) available over-the-counter: new measures to support safe use

We have introduced pack size restrictions, revised recommended ages for use, and new safety warnings for over-the-counter stimulant laxatives (orally and rectally administered) following a national safety review. Advise patients that dietary and lifestyle measures should be used first-line for relieving short-term occasional constipation and that stimulant laxatives should only be used if these measures and other laxatives are ineffective.

Advice for healthcare professionals:

Constipation treatment options

  • for constipation, manage underlying causes and advise adult patients on appropriate first-line dietary and lifestyle measures, such as increasing dietary fibre, fluid intake, and activity levels
  • stimulant laxatives should only be used if other laxatives (bulk-forming and osmotic) are ineffective (as clinical guidance)
  • children younger than 12 years should not use stimulant laxatives without advice from a prescriber and clinical guidance should be followed

Changes to availability

  • large packs of stimulant laxatives will no longer be available from general sale outlets, such as newsagents and supermarkets — smaller packs will continue to be available in these outlets for short-term, occasional constipation in adults
  • pharmacies will continue to hold larger packs of up to 100 tablets for use in adults and children aged 12 years or older, under the supervision of a pharmacist – see Pharmacy Guide produced by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and MHRA

Advice to provide to patients

  • seek support from a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist for ongoing constipation, rather than self-medicating with laxatives in the long-term
  • if symptoms of constipation persist after dietary and lifestyle changes and short-term laxative treatment (under the advice of pharmacist), or in case of persistent abdominal pain or passing blood, consult a doctor
  • parents and caregivers should seek medical advice about constipation in children – children younger than 12 years should not use stimulant laxatives unless told to do so by their prescriber


Stimulant laxatives are used to treat constipation. Medicines available in the UK over-the-counter are bisacodyl (such as Dulcolax), senna and sennosides (isolated, as calcium salts; such as Senokot), and sodium picosulfate (such as Dulcolax Pico).

The safety of stimulant laxatives has been under close review by the MHRA for many years following concerns relating to misuse and abuse. Previous measures have included the addition of warnings to some products to advise that laxatives do not aid weight loss and that long-term use may be harmful.

National safety review

Following a national safety review, including advice from expert advisory groups and an Expert Working Group, the Commission on Human Medicines (CHM) has recommended the MHRA introduce a package of measures to support the safe use of over-the-counter stimulant laxatives in the UK.

In their in-depth review of the benefits and risks of these medicines, CHM noted that stimulant laxatives have an acceptable safety profile, have been widely used for many years, and are generally used responsibly. However, CHM also considered evidence that stimulant laxatives are subject to misuse and overuse. Such cases mostly concern people with eating disorders, although misuse and overuse are likely to be under-reported (see data in Public Assessment Report). Occasional, serious reports of misuse and overdose have been received, including rare reports of fatalities.

Furthermore, CHM noted that current clinical guidance recommends that stimulant laxatives should not be used first-line for short-term constipation. CHM concluded that stimulant laxatives could continue to be available to patients to purchase, subject to a range of proportionate measures to reduce the risk of misuse and support correct use.

Changes to stimulant laxatives to support safety

Pack size restrictions

Smaller packs will continue to be available for general sale for the treatment of short-term, occasional constipation for use in adults only. Products available for general sale will be limited to a pack size of two short treatment courses (up to 20 standard-strength tablets, 10 maximum-strength tablets or 100ml solution/syrup). This limit is to reflect that these medicines should be used for only short-term, occasional constipation.

Stimulant laxatives on general sale (in shops and supermarkets) will be recommended for use only in people 18 years or older. Stimulant laxatives should no longer be used in children under 12 years without advice from a prescriber, while products for children aged 12 to 17 years can be supplied under the supervision of a pharmacist.

Harmonisation of indications and new safety warnings

The indications for all stimulant laxative products available over-the-counter have been made consistent and any uses not appropriate for the self-care setting have been removed. Where stimulant laxatives are required regularly for longer-term use in chronic constipation or for indications not appropriate for the self-care setting, such as bowel clearance before surgery, they will be available as prescription-only products.

Warnings in the patient information leaflets that accompany these medicines will be made consistent and advise patients that overuse of stimulant laxatives may be harmful due to the risk of fluid and electrolyte disturbances and potential disruption of intestinal function. Warnings are also being added to packaging to support awareness. The product information will also include the new age recommendations.

We have worked with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society to produce a Pharmacy Guide for pharmacists and those working in pharmacies to support these changes, see Dealing with over-the-counter stimulant laxatives in community pharmacy.

General advice about constipation

Constipation is a common condition and affects people of all ages, although it is more common in older people. There may be many factors involved, including not eating enough fibre, not drinking enough fluids, not moving enough or exercising, changes to diet or daily routine, adverse effects of medicines, stress, anxiety or depression or, rarely, an underlying medical condition.

Constipation can usually be treated at home with simple changes to diet and lifestyle. If these measures do not work, a pharmacist can provide advice on an appropriate laxative.

Usually a bulk-forming laxative (such as ispaghula husk [Fybogel and Ispagel]) or methylcellulose [Celevac] or sterculia [Normacol]) would be used first, followed by an osmotic laxative (such as lactulose [Duphalac] or macrogols [Movicol, CosmoCol and Laxido]) in addition to, or instead of, a bulk-forming laxative. If these are not effective, then a stimulant laxative may be added in addition to a bulk-forming laxative. All of these laxatives are available as over-the-counter medicines and should only be taken occasionally.

Availability of updated packs

Updated stimulant laxative products have already begun to become available in general sale outlets and pharmacies. Existing packs may continue to be available for sale until early Autumn of 2020.

We ask for pharmacists to provide parents and caregivers with the most up-to-date instructions (provided in Pharmacy Guide or updated Patient Information Leaflets) with purchase of existing packs without the safety changes during the transition.

Report suspected adverse drug reactions

Suspected adverse drug reactions to stimulant laxatives should be reported via the Yellow Card Scheme. Healthcare professionals, patients, and caregivers can report suspected side effects via the Yellow Card website or via the Yellow Card app. Download the app via iTunes Yellow Card for iOS devices or via PlayStore Yellow Card for Android devices. You can also view recent alerts from the MHRA and read Drug Safety Updates through the App newsfeed.

Article citation: Drug Safety Update volume 14, issue 1: August 2020: 1.

This article has been published online on 18 August 2020, in advance of the rest of the August 2020 Drug Safety Update. This is to enable healthcare professionals and the public to receive consistent information on advice for stimulant laxatives.

Published 18 August 2020