Restrictions introduced on sales of laxatives to counter risks from overuse

The new guidelines restrict the use of stimulant laxatives such as senna, sodium picosulfate, and bisacodyl sold in retail outlets to patients over the age of 18. 

Laura Townsend
18 August 2020

The MHRA has warned that stimulant laxatives do not help with weight loss.

People who take stimulant laxatives for constipation are being advised that these will now be sold in smaller packs, with on-pack warnings.

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The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has taken action to reduce abuse and overuse of these products; Additional label warnings make clear that stimulant laxatives do not help with weight loss.

The new guidelines have been introduced following a review into the safety of these medicines, by the Commission on Human Medicines (CHM), prompted by concerns regarding the overuse and misuse of stimulant laxatives by patients with eating disorders, overuse in the elderly and use in children without medical supervision.

The new guidelines restrict the use of stimulant laxatives such as senna, sodium picosulfate, and bisacodyl sold in retail outlets to patients over the age of 18.

Pharmacists will have more flexibility but will recommend those requiring regular use or those younger than 12 years old to see their GP.

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MHRA advises that the long overuse of stimulant laxatives can result in damage to the digestive system, including chronic constipation and damage to the nerves and muscles of the colon.

Eating disorders.

Dr Sarah Branch, Director of MHRA’s Vigilance and Risk Management of Medicines Division, said: “Stimulant laxatives can provide short-term relief to some people with occasional constipation, and most people use these medicines safely. However, there is evidence of misuse by people with eating disorders, and of long-term use by the elderly, as well as inappropriate use in children.

“Patient safety is our highest priority. We believe these new measures are necessary to address the risks associated with misuse, while continuing to allow safe and appropriate access to these medicines without prescription to treat short-term constipation.”

Rebecca Willgress, Beat Eating Disorders Charity Head of Communications, added: “Laxatives can prove attractive for people affected by eating disorders, but also have the potential to cause serious health problems. Our own 2014 survey on sufferers who abused laxatives found that nearly all had bought laxatives over the counter, and 66.7% said they had developed a dependency on them.

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“We hope that these new regulations will make it more difficult for people who are unwell to obtain laxatives, as well as help to educate the wider public on the dangers of abusing them.”

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