Change of bowel habit

“One man’s constipation may be another man’s normal bowel habit.”
V Moore Gillan. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 1984

The workings of our gut (known as bowel habit) can change depending on what we have been eating or drinking - or the occasional stomach bug – so it is important to know what is a normal bowel habit for you and to know when it has really changed.

How often do you go to the toilet? For most people (9 out of 10 people), how often they go to the loo to open their bowels (doctors call this defaecation) varies from once every 2-3 days in some - to twice a day in others. A regular bowel habit - described as 1 bowel action a day – happens for fewer than half of us.
The consistency or texture of our stools or “poo” can also vary from day to day and vary between people. Men tend to have looser stools than women - and diet and drinking habits affect our stools. .

The terms ‘constipation’ and ‘diarrhoea’ are commonly used to describe changes in bowel habit, but these words mean different things to different people. Research shows that changes in bowel habit lasting for only a few days - or even a week or two - are extremely common. Two thirds of us will report having diarrhoea in the previous year, while one in three will report constipation.
Constipation is more common in the elderly than in the young and more common in women than men. Elderly people are more likely to use laxatives -and a lot of people treat themselves with products they have bought from the chemist or changing their diet.

The best way to be sure your bowel habit has really changed is to wait for at least three weeks. If your bowel habit does not go back to what was normal for you, get advice from a pharmacist at your local chemist shop. If the problem is getting worse, see your GP.

Before you see your GP, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Am I going to the loo more or less often than is normal for me?
  • Is the consistency of my stools looser and softer - or harder and drier -than normal?
  • Have the changes persisted for at least 3-4 weeks

This is more helpful than just saying you have constipation or diarrhoea.
Other types of changes in your bowel habit that you may notice without a change in how often you go to the loo or consistency of the stool - like changes in its shape, colour, narrowness or other appearances - are often less important.