How to Manage Constipation When Living with a Serious Illness

Woman sitting on a couch, about to take a prescription pill with a glass of water

Are you or a loved one living with a serious illness like cancer, kidney disease, or heart failure? If so, it’s important to know of a common symptom that isn’t always top of mind or discussed—constipation, which affects around 70% of people living with serious illness. Addressing constipation can improve quality of life and help with discomfort or pain.

Why is constipation common for people with serious illness?

The term “constipation” can mean many things: stool that is too hard or too small, making stool difficult or infrequent, or any decrease in normal bowel movement patterns. While there is no universally agreed-upon definition, a few factors contribute. These include age, reduced physical activity, changes in diet or fluid intake, pain, and medications like opioids used for pain relief. (Opioids, especially, can slow down digestion and make constipation worse.)

Recognizing the signs of constipation

Constipation isn’t just about infrequent bowel movements. It can also cause bloating, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits. Sometimes, it can lead to symptoms like agitation or confusion, especially if your loved one has cognitive issues like dementia.

How to manage and treat constipation

The best way to manage constipation is to prevent it. Your palliative care team or other doctors (e.g., cancer doctor) can help by recommending lifestyle changes such as a healthier diet, staying hydrated, and staying active, if possible. If you are prescribed opioids, your doctor should also suggest a laxative to counteract their constipating effects.

When constipation occurs, let your palliative care team or other doctors know so they can help you. There are treatments available. Your doctor might recommend over-the-counter laxatives or medications specifically designed to relieve your constipation. These treatments will help restore normal bowel movements and prevent constipation or other related problems in the future.

Managing constipation at home

You or your loved one can take steps at home to manage constipation. Simple things like increasing fiber intake (fruit, vegetables, and cereals), staying hydrated, and using mild laxatives usually help. Your doctor may provide you with a plan to follow so you can take control of your symptoms.

In conclusion

While constipation is a common concern for many people living with serious illness, it can be managed with the right approach. By understanding the causes, recognizing the symptoms, and working closely with your palliative care team and other doctors, you can help ease constipation and worries and improve your overall quality of life.

Remember, your palliative care team and other doctors are there to help you navigate these symptoms and other challenges you may face. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or discuss any concerns or symptoms you may have—they’re here to support you every step of the way.

About GetPalliativeCare.Org is an online resource for patients and families that focuses solely on providing information on palliative care from the point of diagnosis. At, you can take a short quiz to see whether you could benefit from palliative care and find a nearby provider. The site is provided by the Center to Advance Palliative Care.


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