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Don’t Flush Your Health Down the Toilet

By Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP March 22, 2017Pearls of Wisdom Blog

It sounds gross, but looking in the toilet before you flush can actually tell you a lot about your health. What you see can be a harmless reminder of what you ate, or it can be a sign of a serious health problem. You should always pay attention to the appearance of your stools and changes in your body.


Red stools can indicate intestinal bleeding. You may see red in the stool, on the toilet paper, and/or in the toilet bowl. Bright red generally indicates bleeding from the rectum or lower colon, while dark red or maroon usually indicates bleeding from further along in the colon or from the middle to lower small intestine. Causes of bleeding include hemorrhoids, anal fissure (skin tear), inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis), intestinal infection, diverticular disease, large polyps, or colorectal cancer. Don’t assume that rectal bleeding is coming from hemorrhoids. What causes hemorrhoids to bleed can make a polyp or tumor bleed as well.

Red foods such as beets and red dye in foods, beverages, and medications can turn your stools red. Purple and orange colored products are made with red dye and this is why your clear liquid choices are limited when you prep for a colonoscopy.

Black stools can indicate old blood that has traveled through the digestive system from the upper GI tract (esophagus, stomach and upper small intestine). These stools tend to be tarry and have a very bad smell. The blood can be caused from ulcers, inflammation, irregular blood vessels, or a tumor.

Black stools can also be caused by the black dye in black licorice and frosting and from foods that are dark in color such as blueberries. Iron supplements and medications with bismuth, like Pepto-Bismol, can also cause black stools.

White. Gray or Pale:
Light colored stools can indicate that the bile duct is clogged or there is a lack of bile (the fluid that absorbs fat) being made. This can be an indication of gallstones, chronic pancreatitis, liver diseases like hepatitis, or cancer of the pancreas or bile ducts. Jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and eyes, often accompanies this change in stool color.

White stools can be caused by contrast from a barium enema exam as well as from some of the anti-diarrheal drugs such as Kaopectate.

This article focuses on stools, but pink or red urine can be an indication of a health problem. The color change can be caused by a bladder or kidney infection, enlarged prostate or cancer of the kidney or urinary tract. It can also be a side effect of some foods and medications.

Shape and Consistency

Narrow pencil shape stools can indicate that something is squeezing or partially blocking the inside of the colon or rectum. This can be caused by inflammation, an enlarged prostate, or colorectal cancer.

Diarrhea (loose, watery stools) and constipation (hard stools) can be caused by many different disorders as wells as from foods and changes in daily habits. It’s important to know that these can also be a sign of colorectal cancer.

Stools that are large, greasy/oily, foul smelling and may float in the toilet bowl can indicate a problem with digesting and absorbing fats. This can be caused by gallstones, pancreatitis, or pancreatic cancer. Fat blocking drugs, like some of the weight loss products, can also cause this.

Seeking Medical Attention

It’s common for stools to change because of your dietary intake, medications you take, and fluctuations in your daily routine. Contact your healthcare provider if changes in your stool last longer than a few days or you have other signs and symptoms at the same time. These include fever, abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting, jaundice, dizziness, and/or unintentional weight loss. Fainting, chest pain and shortness of breath can all be symptoms of blood loss and need immediate medical attention.

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Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Author Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Complex GI Cancer Nurse Navigator with Sarah Cannon Institute at Medical City Healthcare Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP is a nurse navigator specializing in complex GI health at Sarah Cannon at Medical City Plano in Plano, TX. She is also a certified chronic care professional health coach and enjoys educating patients and families.

More posts by Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

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