Are Your Bowels Moving?

Moving your bowels means to poop. If you said "yuck," you're not alone. Most people don't want to discuss going poop. But moving your bowels is an important body function, so it's good to know what's normal and what's not.

Your bowels, also called the large intestine (say: in-tess-tin), are the lower parts of your digestive system. Your intestines finish the process of digesting food — a process that starts in your mouth and stomach and ends with you going to the bathroom.

About 2 quarts (1.9 liters) of food and liquids pass through your body each day. They can stay for several days in your bowels, where your body absorbs water and salts. As water is absorbed, the digested food gets more solid and becomes a bowel movement (poop).

What's Normal?

Many people think that normal means having one bowel movement every day, but that's not always true. People are different, and so are their bowels. Normal for one person might be three bowel movements a day, and normal for another might be three bowel movements a week. If your bowel movements fit somewhere in that range, then you're on a normal schedule.

Constipation

Constipation (what TV ads call irregularity) means that you're not moving your bowels often enough, and your bowel movements are harder and drier than normal.

Normal bowel movements should be soft and easy to pass. They shouldn't be dry, hard, or painful. If they are or you've gone for more than 4 days without having one, you may be constipated.

If you think that you're constipated, tell your parents. They can help you try some very simple ways of getting your bowels back on a regular schedule. Most of the time, this means changing the foods you eat, at least for a while. You may need more foods that have lots of fiber (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains). You may need to eat fewer fatty and greasy foods (like fried chicken and french fries) and fewer sugary foods (like soda and candy). Drinking more water is also often a good idea.

Exercise is one of the best ways to keep your digestive system moving, so you may want to turn off the TV and take a bike ride instead. You also might try getting up a little earlier in the morning to give yourself extra time to use the bathroom before school. And when you're in school, if you need to use the bathroom, don't wait. Waiting only makes constipation worse.

And no matter what the TV commercials say, don't use laxatives unless your parents and your doctor say that it's OK. Laxatives may make constipation worse and cause other problems if they're not used properly.

Sometimes, if you're very constipated, some liquid stuff that seems like diarrhea might leak out around the hard poop that hasn't come out. If this happens, you might have a messy accident. You may feel a little embarrassed, but talk to your parents about this problem. Your doctor can help your bowels get back on track and you can learn how to prevent accidents in the future.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea means you have to move your bowels often, and your bowel movements are loose, mushy, and watery. Sometimes this happens if you change the kinds of foods you eat or if you're taking certain medicines. Diarrhea also can happen when you don't wash your hands after you go to the bathroom and before you eat. Washing your hands washes away germs that could end up in your mouth!

Diarrhea can be caused by an infection in the intestines or another part of the body. Sometimes diarrhea is the only symptom of an infection. An infection can make you feel sick, give you a fever, and make you feel like throwing up. If this happens, your parents can help or ask your doctor for advice. They can help make you more comfortable and give you foods that are easy to digest while you get better.

Can Stress Affect Your Bowels?

Sometimes, being worried or upset can give you either diarrhea or constipation. You might even have some combination of tummy pain, bloating (the feeling that you're pumped up with air), gas, diarrhea, and constipation.

If you get these kind of symptoms often, tell your parents. You may have sensitive bowels — a common problem doctors call irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is also called spastic colon, mucous colitis, or nervous bowel.

Tummy pain is the most common problem of IBS. Also, people with IBS can have diarrhea, constipation, or both at different times. When someone with IBS passes a bowel movement, mucus (thick, slippery fluid that looks like egg white) can sometimes come out, too.

People with IBS often can feel better by changing their diets. They can also learn new ways to handle their worries so that they feel less stressed out.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Sometimes passing a large, hard bowel movement can cause a small tear in the skin around the anus (the opening where bowel movements pass out of your body). This small tear, called a fissure (say: fih-shur), can bleed. Usually if you see a streak of blood on the toilet paper, this is why. The tear will heal in a few days and you'll be fine.

But blood in a bowel movement can also mean a more serious problem, especially if you also feel weak or sick with nausea, pain, cramps, or diarrhea. You should tell your parents right away, and they can ask your doctor about it.

Another important thing to remember is that all people move their bowels — from the president of the United States to your parents, teachers, and friends. And everybody has problems like diarrhea and constipation sometimes. But with a little help from your parents, chances are you'll be back to normal in no time!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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