The color of poop – and what it might mean for your health

MOST TIMES, FOR PEOPLE who aren’t otherwise obsessed with their bowel habits, poop just gets flushed away. And, in a manner of speaking, that’s the end of it.

But sometimes it’s not just plain-old brown. And though many may not feel comfortable talking about it, a whole lot of people are online searching for information on poop color. In fact, a recent study of the most Googled medical symptoms by state from MedicareHealthPlans found that, in head-scratchingly specific fashion, “light colored poop” and “dark green stool” topped the list in Wisconsin and South Carolina, respectively.

Such curiosities, of course, aren’t limited by state borders. Many medical organizations have worked to make health-relevant information about poop color more readily available online, and clinicians say they field questions – and even receive photos – from patients of what’s in the toilet bowl. It’s not just idle curiosity. Unexpected or explainable changes in poo hue (when it’s not obviously the result of what you ate, for example) can sometimes be germane to a person’s health.

[See: How Often Should I Poop, and Other Toilet Topics.]

As a result, whether warranted or not, bowel movement-related changes can be alarming to people and prompt a visceral reaction: “They get very concerned about diarrhea, constipation, poop color,” says Dr. John Inadomi, head of the division of gastroenterology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

As to why it might lead to so many searches online, “I think that people are somewhat obsessed about their bowel habits and yet are very reluctant to talk openly about it,” Inadomi says. Poop questions, though they seem to be more openly addressed by the day – at least online – can still be kind of taboo. Although some people are more open about discussing the issue than others, “it’s much less intimidating to ask Dr. Google, than to ask your mom or your sister or your college roommate,” says Dr. Jill Clark, a colon and rectal surgeon at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Whatever your reason for taking notice in the bathroom, if you have concerns about changes in poop color or consistency (from diarrhea to constipation), experts say it’s important to put aside any embarrassment or reluctance – if you’re not naturally open about it – and talk to your primary care doctor. “Stool color alone is not a standalone diagnostic test; but if there’s a change that doesn’t make sense, then probably it’s worth asking someone who can help with that,” Clarks says.

[See: 10 Weird Things That Can Make You Poop.]

In particular, there are some changes to color that should be heeded:

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Poop color and your health
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Poop color and your health

Red: This can – in some cases more obviously than others – be a sign of blood in the stool, whether the stool itself looks bright red or you see bright red blood around it. Experts say the most common reason for this is hemorrhoids – swollen veins in your rectum or anus. “So you can see like flecks of blood or blood on the outside of the stool, or when you wipe, on the toilet paper,” says Dr. Christine Davis, a family medicine physician with UnityPoint Clinic in Waukee, outside of Des Moines, Iowa.

However, it could also be a sign of a more serious issue, ranging from colon cancer to diverticular bleeding, which involves the diverticula – outpouchings, or sacs, in the gastrointestinal tract – that can lead to life-threatening hemorrhaging. So while it’s important not to freak out – and jump to conclusions – experts say it’s key as well not to dismiss the issue, but instead flag your doctor.

Maroon: For the reasons you should heed red or black stool, it’s important to let a doctor know if your stool is this in-between color as well.

Black: Sometimes, just as with some brightly colored foods, medicine can dye your doo-doo. “Really brilliantly colored foods, very green diets or eating lots of beets or eating electric blue ice cream will certainly cause the stool to be a different color, much as taking an iron supplement or taking Pepto-Bismol chronically may cause the stool to be a different color,” Clark says. The medication and supplement can turn it dark as night.

But it’s still worth being sure you know that’s turning your stool black; and especially if you’re not taking either and you still notice you’re passing black, tarry stool, you should be evaluated right away, Davis suggests. As with red stool, black poop can sometimes be a sign that there’s blood in the stool – it’s just been in the poop longer, accounting for the color difference. While Pepto-Bismol or an iron supplement might account for black stool, “more dangerously it might be explained by a gastrointestinal bleed,” Clark says.

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Green: “Any shade of brown, or most shades of brown-green are fine,” Inadomi says. But when stool is really green that may mean it’s moving too quickly through your intestines – and bile hasn’t have a chance to properly break it down and turn it brown. “We worry that if that transit is that fast, then you may not be absorbing your food,” Inadomi says. Malabsorption can be linked to various issues, including inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Yellow: If it’s yellowish – and it floats – it could be owed to your body not absorbing fat as it should. “If you have like an acute inflammatory illness, or some sort of stomach bug, or something like that, you can often have yellow stool, and it’s usually a sign that you’re not absorbing the fat in your colon,” Davis says. Or in some cases a more serious, ongoing intestinal condition, like an inflammatory bowel disease may be to blame.
White to clay-colored: If stool is a very pale in tint, it generally means you don’t have enough bile in it, and it could be a sign of a more severe problem with the liver. Let your physician know right away if you experience this.
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