File this under: Things you've always wanted to ask your doctor but, honestly, never would. Well, we're doing the dirty work for you.
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Ideally, you should need to wipe a couple times after a bowel movement, says James Gordon, MD, a gastroenterologist with Banner Health in Sun City West, Arizona. Wiping one, two or three times is likely totally normal.
But in case you were wondering, it's not crazy to spend time thinking about your butt-wiping habits: They can clue you into your bowel health.
If You Need to Keep Wiping...and Wiping
If there's a lot of soft or pasty stool going on, you probably didn't totally empty things out, Dr. Gordon says. You might need to give yourself more time next time or reconsider your position. Using a toilet stool (like a Squatty Potty), leaning forward and avoiding clenching your jaw or scrunching your face can help you have a complete BM, according to Michigan Medicine.
Sticky stools that make wiping a chore can also indicate lactose intolerance, says Monica Borkar, MD, a gastroenterologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem in Glenview, Illinois. Or, it may also be an indication of a GI condition. "Celiac disease or certain types of gastrointestinal infections are also causes of sticky stools," she says.
If what you're wiping is greasy or oily, then there may be a malabsorption problem, Dr. Borkar adds. This means the food you eat isn't being broken down as it should, which can indicate a problem in the intestines, pancreas or liver, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. This is called steatorrhea, and you'll know something's up: These stools smell foul, and you may also be sidelined by other symptoms, like gas, cramping and weight loss. If you notice any of these, talk to your doctor.
If You Only Need to Wipe Once
Not a problem!
"Most people with soft, formed bowel movements will notice no residue on the toilet paper after having wiped just once," Dr. Borkar says.
If this is you, stop while you're ahead: Over-wiping, especially when not needed, can irritate the area.
If You Don't Need to Wipe at All
This can happen if your stools are small and hard, and that means you may be constipated. Constipation is defined as having fewer than three BMs per week and stools that are hard and dry, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
In that case, "increase your intake of dietary fiber or consider a fiber supplement," Dr. Gordon says. Fiber-rich foods include fruits, veggies, beans, lentils and whole grains.
Constipation can also happen because of medications or supplements you're taking or an underlying GI condition like irritable bowel syndrome with constipation.
However, not wiping at all can also be totally normal, says Niket Sonpal, MD, an internist and gastroenterologist in New York City. If there's no straining and you're regular, then you're just fine. What's most important here is the quality of your stool — not the number of times you need to wipe.
"Stool that is somewhat soft, easy to pass and has small cracks on it is the gold standard of poop. It means you are drinking plenty of water and consuming enough fiber for a proper bowel movement," he says.
If You're Wiping Because There's Blood on the TP
It pays to look at the TP before you flush. Do you see blood? There are some not-to-worry reasons about the presence of bright red blood on the TP, like hemorrhoids.
"Straining — or pushing too hard — stretches the blood vessels in the anus very thin. The veins then bulge and become irritated, which can often cause painless bleeding during a bowel movement," Dr. Sonpal explains. These often go away on their own, or you can relieve symptoms (like itchiness) with over-the-counter creams.
Even if you think it's hemorrhoids, call your doc. Blood when you wipe can't simply be blown off.
"It's extremely important to tell your doctor about it, as other causes need to be excluded," Dr. Borkar says.
The Number of Times You Wipe Is Up to You
Ultimately, wiping is an individual preference, Dr. Borkar says. You probably notice that you have a standard number of times you tend to wipe, and that can vary from person to person.
However, if you notice that your BMs are suddenly deviating from your norm and you have other new symptoms (like a change in bowel habits, bloating and/or abdominal pain), then it's important to chat with your doctor, who may want to investigate further.
Bottom line: Wipe until the TP comes out clean, Dr. Sonpal says. Wiping fanatically or over-wiping can cause irritation, so take care of business, wash your hands and go about your day.