Bodily functions, as embarrassing as they may be to talk about, are a part of everyday life. Our trips to the bathroom are private matters that, frankly, are no one’s business but our own. But when it comes to an unusual occurrence, like finding blood in stool, we may have to bite the bullet and see a doctor.
If you notice something unusual during a trip to the bathroom, it probably means that there’s an internal issue that may not be so obvious. One such situation, such as finding blood in stool, can mean multiple things — none of which should be taken lightly. Below, we break down what finding blood in stool can mean for you or a loved one.
When you find blood in your stool, the first thing you might think is that it must mean you’re bleeding from around your anus. Though practical, this isn’t always the case. What blood in the stool actually means is that there is bleeding somewhere in your digestive tract. Sometimes you may not even notice it, but sometimes it can turn the whole toilet bright red.
It’s a shocking thing to find yourself bleeding from a place that has otherwise been working fine for your whole life. This bleeding might be coupled with a series of other symptoms, however, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, weakness, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, palpitations, fainting, and weight loss. All of these symptoms can be attributed to the same malady as blood in stool.
There are different degrees of blood in the stool as well. It can be bright red, maroon-colored, or even black and tarry as dried blood. If the problem is in the lower part of the digestive tract, the blood will be brighter, if in the upper part, the blood will be dark. Either way, any amount of blood should be cause enough to take a trip to your doctor.
After collecting your medical history and a cursory physical exam, a gastroenterologist (a doctor in matters of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum, among other parts of the digestive tract) may take stool samples to run as tests. After that, x-rays may be required. Gastroenterologists use a barium contrast when x-raying the digestive tract so it shows up in an x-ray. Nevertheless, more tests may be required.
Scope it Out
Another test that may be required involves inserting a scope through the rectum in order to view the colon. This test, known as a colonoscopy, is frequently used to collect tissue samples within the colon to test for cancer. An endoscopy is the same sort of procedure, only the tube and scope is inserted in the mouth to view the small intestine. Both usually involve using a camera to see inside the digestive tract.
Another test involves removing the contents of the stomach by way of a tube inserted into the stomach through the nose. This method is used to determine if the blood is coming from the upper or lower part of the digestive tract. If there is no blood in the stomach, the bleeding is likely lower, closer to the colon.
The medical procedure known as radionuclide scanning involves injecting a small amount of radioactive material directly into a vein. After it’s injected, a special camera transmits images of blood flow in the digestive tract to a monitor, which allows doctors to detect where the bleeding is occurring.
A similar, albeit much less complicated, procedure known as angiography, is often used before getting to the point of radionuclide scanning. It works by injecting dye into the blood vessels that make them visible by either x-ray or CT scan. It detects where the bleeding is by seeing where on the scan the blood appears to be leaking out of the digestive tract.
If all these prove to be inconclusive, there are more invasive means of determining where a bleed is located. A laparotomy is a surgical procedure in which the doctor opens and examines the abdomen. It is a bit more extreme than all the other procedures of course, but it is often necessary to get to the real answer.
Health care providers will sometimes order lab tests to test stools for anemia, clotting problems, or the presence of harmful bacteria like H. pylori in concert with the other tests. Once they understand what is going on, your doctor can more accurately diagnose the source of the bleeding. There are several maladies out there that can cause blood in stool.
Diverticula or Anal Fissures
One of the things that might affect your stools is something called diverticulitis, which is an infection of the diverticula, small pouches that project from the colon wall. These diverticula can become inflamed and bleed from the infection. Another thing that might cause bleeding is anal fissures, which are small cuts, like a paper cut, in and around the anus. Anal fissures can be caused when passing large, hard stools.
Colitis or Angiodysplasia
Simple inflammation of the colon may be what’s increasing the blood in your stool as well. These basic infections, otherwise known as colitis, are common and can usually be managed with medication. Angiodysplasia is a rare condition which sees small, fragile, abnormal blood vessels in the colon bleeding after becoming inflamed.
A peptic ulcer is caused by an open sore in the lining of the stomach or duodenum. The duodenum is located at the upper end of the small intestine. Many peptic ulcers are actually caused by the bacteria, H. pylori, but they can also be caused by the long-term or abusive use of anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen.
Similar to the tears involved in anal fissures and angiodysplasia, varicose veins within our esophagus can tear suddenly, leaking blood into the digestive process. These tears can be severe and usually come along with pain and other symptoms, so you might be more aware of them than you would with the other diagnoses.
The final source of blood in the intestine may be due to polyps, benign growths that can appear in the colon. Normally, these growths are mostly harmless. Sure, they can bleed and are of some concern, but they are generally removed when they are found. This is most commonly done during colonoscopies.
When these polyps are left to their own devices, they can become cancerous. Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United States and one of the most aggressive if it’s not caught early. It should also be noted that these polyps don’t always cause noticeable bleeding so if you have a history of this cancer in your family, so it pays to get regular checks for it.
So now we know what might be causing us to have blood in stools, but how do we fix the problem? Acute bleeding is a long-term problem and there are many ways that gastroenterologists treat it. One of them involves using an endoscopy to inject chemicals at the bleeding site. They can also treat the site with a laser, apply a clip to staunch the bleeding, or even use an electric current.
The Underlying Cause
Beyond stopping the immediate bleeding, more long-term treatments may be necessary. These solutions will address the underlying cause of the bleed and hopefully, stop it from returning. Long-term solutions include medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs to treat colitis or antibiotics to treat H. pylori infections.
Surgical or Simple Solutions
In some cases, whether they be cancer, diverticulitis, or inflammatory bowel disease, surgery may be required. There are a number of simple things you can do in the meantime that might stop things like constipation and anal fissures. Try eating more fiber and taking warm baths to relieve the pain from inflammation.
Call the Doctor
Ultimately, the best thing you can do when you find any blood in your stool is to talk to your doctor. We may be able to provide you with possible explanations, but only they will be able to best determine the cause and treatment for what could be a potentially serious malady and make recommendations for your speedy recovery.