Bowel habits can vary from person to person. This includes how often you have a bowel movement, your control over when you have a bowel movement, and the bowel movement’s consistency and color. Alterations in any aspect of these habits over the course of a day represent a change in bowel habits.
While some bowel movement changes can represent temporary infections, others may indicate greater cause for concern. Knowing when to seek medical help can prevent an emergency condition from worsening.
4 Types of Change in Bowel Habits You Should Know
A bowel movement is the last stop for your digestion. Regular bowel movements do not mean that you have to pass your stool daily, as long as your bowel movements are within the range of 3 times in a day to about 3 times in a week, it is normal and regular.
1. Changes in Color
Colors changes are commonly attributed to medications and foods but, in some cases, they may represent an underlying medical condition. See the common color changes in bowel movements below:
- Black or tarry stool
A disorder or injury in the digestive tract will lead to dark or tarry stool, so does bleeding in the upper digestive track. Bleeding may result from inflammation or an ulcer. The combination of digestive juices with the blood gives your stool the tarry color. Other causes of black stool include taking lead, black licorice, iron pills, medications with bismuth and blue berries.
- Red stool
Blood in the lower gastrointestinal track, including blood from the rectum, large bowel and anus, will cause red stool. Diverticulosis or a pouch in the colon and hemorrhoids may cause bleeding in this section. Other rare causes of bleeding include abnormal blood vessels and intestinal tumor. Red stool may also be caused by constipation and a recent meal of red food coloring tomatoes, and beets. As for children, if red stool occurs, it could indicate a milk allergy, whichrequires immediate medical care.
- Pale white or clay-colored stool
The liver releases bile, which gives a healthy stool its brown color. Sallow or colorless stool indicate that there is an underlying condition in the liver, gall bladder or pancreas. The condition could be a tumor, infection, cysts, blockage, or gallstones. Medications such as anti-diarrhea and bismuth sap the color of stool.
- Green stool
Adults may have green stool because of diarrhea or eating some foods with a deep-green color, such as leafy vegetables. Iron supplements cause green stool as well. Persistent green color in stool may represent an intestinal condition or infection.
- A Note about the Color of Baby Stool
Babies pass green or yellowish stool more than adults do. Newborns pass meconium, which is dark green, thick stool. Meconium is made of bile, fine hair, mucus, shed skin cells and amniotic fluids. The stool changes to a more mustardy-yellow tinge after some days. Breast-fed infants pass yellow-brown stool after meconium while formula-fed infants pass darker stool with paste-like consistency. The stool color changes to dark brown when the baby starts eating solids. The color depends of what the baby eats.
2. Changes in Consistency
Constipation and diarrhea causes a change in bowel habits. The stool may become harder or softer. Any other changes in composition indicate an underlying condition or illness.
- Narrow stool
Occasional narrow stool is normal. However, thin stool is sometimes a sign of irritable bowel syndrome. If the stool is pencil-thin, it may indicate an obstruction in the colon and colon cancer is possibly to blame.
- Hard, dry, or rough stool
If stool takes a long period to move along the intestinal tract, it will lead to constipation with hard stool. Rough, hard, or dry stool is a common constipation sign.
- Watery stool
A quick stool movement through the large intestine could indicate diarrhea characterized by loose, watery stool.
- Floating stool
Excess gas causes buoyant stool. If gastrointestinal infections and diarrhea are present, the gas that bacteria produce in the intestines will be greatly increased, leading to floating poop. Also, certain gas-producing food as well as food absorption problems would lead to undigested nutrients and fat, resulting in floating stool.
- Stool with pus or mucus
Stool with small amounts of mucus is normal. However, large amounts of pus or mucus may be a sign of gastrointestinal tract irritation, infection, or inflammation. The underlying conditions may include colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease.
- Stool with undigested food
In many cases, the undigested food in stool is indigestible. For instance, high-fiber vegetables are indigestible.
3. Changes in Frequency
Your stools can become less or more frequent. Sudden or serious change in bowel habits should be reported to a doctor. For example,you should seek help from your doctor if you do not have a bowel movement in more than three days, or if your diarrhea lasts for more than a day and if you cannot control your bowels.
4. Changes in Odor
The large number of bacteria in the intestinal tract gives stools a bad smell. You know the odor of your stool and can notice changes in the smell. Dietary changes and malabsorption are common causes of smelly poop. Malabsorption is often associated with intestinal disease or infection that hinders normal absorption. Some medications and supplements could also be the cause. An extreme change in odor may indicate an underlying condition such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or celiac disease.
How Are Changes in Bowel Habits Diagnosed?
When you get medical attention, a doctor will take a medical history and ask you to describe your symptoms. You may be asked to provide a stool sample to test for the presence of blood if you are experiencing blood in your stool.
Additional tests that may be used to determine potential causes for changes in bowel habits include:
- blood tests to determine blood and vitamin levels
- colonoscopy, a test that views the inner lining of the colon to identify polyps, pouches known as diverticula, or areas of bleeding
- CT scan to view tumors or other bowel irregularities
- X-ray imaging to view trapped air in the bowel
How Are Changes in Bowel Habits Treated?
Changes in bowel habits are treated based on the underlying cause your doctor identifies. If bleeding is a concern, a gastrointestinal specialist may repair the bleeding area or it may heal itself.
A doctor may recommend prevention methods if constipation is a concern. These can include:
- drinking more water
- exercising regularly
- going to the bathroom when you have an urge (do not wait to use the restroom)
- increasing your fiber intake
Other treatments will depend upon your specific diagnosis.
Bowel Movement Changes Can Be a Sign of Colon Cancer
Bowel movement changes typically aren’t something you’d discuss at the dinner table, but you should get comfortable discussing them with your doctor. Changes in how often you are going to the bathroom, whether you experience constipation or diarrhea regularly, and various other characteristics of your stool are important clues to what’s going on inside your digestive tract.
What “changes in bowel movements” means can vary from person to person.
For example, if it is normal for a person to have three bowel movements per day, and he or she is having only one per day, or one every other day, this may signal constipation. On the other hand, another person’s typical bowel pattern may be to have a bowel movement every other day. In this case, having one bowel movement per day may be unusually frequent, and it may signal a change in typical bowel habits.
As such, it’s a good idea to know what’s normal for you. You certainly don’t need to keep a detailed record of your bathroom habits, but if you notice a change from what is typical for you, pay attention. If the changes only last a short time, or you know the reason for the change (say, you’ve been sick or you ate something that doesn’t agree with you), you don’t need to worry.
When Changes In Bowel Movements Signal Something Serious
On the other hand, if you experience changes in bowel habits that last for more than a few weeks, or if you struggle with chronic constipation, chronic diarrhea, or intermittent constipation or diarrhea, you should make an appointment to see your doctor sooner rather than later.
Changes in bowel habits can have many causes ranging from the not-so-serious to the very serious. You don’t want to ignore these changes. If they signal something serious, such as colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, the sooner you get a diagnosis the better. With colon cancer, for example, if diagnosed in the earliest stages, survival rates are well over 90 percent.
If the cancer is more advanced and has spread beyond the colon, survival rates drop dramatically.
In addition to frequency (how often you go), changes in stool color and consistency can signal a problem. Specifically, pay attention to whether your stool is anything other than some shade of brown: Deep red, maroon, black or tarry stools can point to bleeding in the digestive tract; stools that are pale stools, clay-colored or white can indicate a problem in the biliary tract.
Depending on your history and physical, your doctor may schedule a screeningexam, such as a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, to aid in making a diagnosis and recommendations for treatment.
If you notice changes in your bowel habits, waiting to find out why is not a good idea. You may be scared about the possibility of having colon cancer, but finding out now is the best way to take care of yourself and get the medical care you need. In the overwhelming majority of cases, you will find out that you do not have colon cancerand that something far less serious is causing your symptoms.