The government is considering imposing stricter regulations on the sale of laxatives amid concerns they could be abused by people with eating disorders.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will examine measures such as age limits on purchasers and possibly ending over-the-counter sales.
Experts say available evidence suggests more than half of patients with eating disorders have misused them.
Laxatives should never be used for weight control.
Medical professionals warn that laxative abuse can cause diarrhoea, dehydration and imbalances that can lead to kidney failure.
‘Dangers of abuse’
But currently, unlimited quantities of laxatives can be bought without a prescription from pharmacies and supermarkets.
Rebecca Wojturska, 29 and from Fife, Scotland, says she bought and used laxatives for four years.
“I was 19 when I first took them. My doctor had prescribed them as a two week course, but then I started buying them for myself. I was spending quite a lot of money every week on them.
“I had an eating disorder and it was for about four years that I was abusing them.”
She welcomes the idea of more safeguards, as does Rebecca Field, a spokeswoman for eating-disorders charity Beat: “Just as painkillers are regulated to prevent people overusing them and harming their own health, there should be restrictions on the availability of laxatives.
“It is vital that people are aware of the dangers of abusing laxatives and there should be more education on their effects.
“Doctors and pharmacists should also be made aware that overuse of laxatives is one of the signs of an eating disorder, so that they are able to intervene and ensure sufferers get treatment.”
The MHRA says its review will take “some months”.
A spokesperson said: “We are reviewing the safety of stimulant laxatives following concerns about the potential for abuse and misuse and considering how regulatory measures can best support their correct use, in line with current clinical guidance.
“All medicines, including those bought over-the-counter, must be used responsibly and as advised in the information provided with the medicine.
“Patient safety is our highest priority and we work to make sure the benefits of medicines outweigh the risks. This includes assessing whether regulatory action is needed to minimise the potential for abuse.”