Do you sneak a peek after finishing your — ahem — business? If you do and you notice that your poop is oddly light, you may need to check in with your doctor. Pale blonde, white or clay colored stool can be a sign of serious digestive issues.
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What Causes Pale Stool
"Pale stools could occur in the setting of serious medical conditions involving the liver or the pancreas," says Kelly Krikhely, RD, CDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian/nutritionist and an adjunct professor at New York University. It could signal problems like a blocked bile duct or an inflammatory bowel condition such as Crohn's disease.
Sometimes, however, oddly light stool may just be caused by taking certain medications or vitamins. For example, one harmless cause of pale stool comes from taking bismuth subsalicylate, commonly known as Pepto-Bismol, according to UC San Diego Health.
Pale stool also may occur if you've had an imaging test that includes the use of barium. Barium, which may be given in liquid or tablet form, makes parts of the digestive tract easier for doctors to see. After the test, the barium is excreted through your stool, possibly making it white, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
When to Be Concerned
"Having a discolored bowel movement one time, especially after consuming a food that you know typically changes the color of your stool, may not be concerning," Krikhely says, noting that there aren't a lot of foods than can cause very light stools.
However, pale stool may be the first sign of a serious problem. If your bowel movements are light, yellow, clay-colored or very light brown, you may have inflammation or an infection in your gallbladder, liver or pancreas, according to Penn Medicine. Gallstones or another type of blockage in the bile ducts also can cause oddly colored stools. Liver inflammation caused by drinking too much alcohol (alcoholic hepatitis) is also known to cause lighter-than-usual stool.
Other Color Changes to Stool
Pale stool isn't the only color change that may indicate a digestive issue. Black stool, like pale stool, can be a harmless change, particularly if you've eaten dark foods, like blueberries or black licorice, according to UC San Diego Health. Iron supplements can also darken your stool. More troubling reasons for black stool include an area of bleeding in the digestive tract, colorectal cancer or liver cirrhosis.
Red stool can also have a number of causes, and not all are worrisome. Red food dyes can change the color of your stool to red, as can eating a lot of red-colored foods like beets or cranberries, states UC San Diego Health. Sometimes women who have their menstrual cycle might notice a tiny bit of blood in their stool, Penn Medicine notes.
There are other, more concerning reasons you might have red stool. One is bleeding in the rectum or anus, and another is cancer is an area of your digestive tract, according to Penn Medicine. If the blood supply in part of your intestines is cut off or if you have swelling in your stomach lining, you may experience red stool. Red stool may also occur if something gets stuck in your digestive tract.
What to Do
"Because change in stool color could result from serious medical conditions, it is always good to err on the side of caution and visit your primary physician for further evaluation," Krikhely advises. "This is especially true if the color of your stool is consistently changed."
In fact, let your doctor know about any change in stool color that lasts two weeks or more, according to UC San Diego Health.
- Kelly Krikhely, RD, CDN, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, New York; adjunct professor, New York University
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Barium Swallow"
- Penn Medicine: "The Scoop on Poop: What Does Your Poop Say About Your Health"
- UC San Diego Health: "End Results: What Color Is Your Poop and Other Pressing Fecal Matters"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.