Perhaps one of the scariest things that can happen to you as you’re going about your day is after you finish using the bathroom, you notice that something’s not quite right. You look down before flushing and notice that there’s blood in your stool.
Blood in the stool can be caused by a number of different things. Before you start to panic, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the possible cause of the problem.
Blood in the stool could be the result of diverticular disease. A diverticulum is a small pouch that can develop on the wall of the colon, projecting outward. When multiple pouches develop, it’s called diverticulosis.
Diverticulosis affects about half of people over the age of 60 in the United States. There are usually no symptoms from having it so it’s not a problem on its own. However with diverticular disease, those pouches can become inflamed, leading to several unpleasant symptoms.
Not Necessarily Serious
In addition to causing cramping, bloating, flatulence, and irregular bowel movement, diverticular disease can result in bright red blood in the stool. Diverticular bleeding is the most common cause of acute lower gastrointestinal bleeding but, fortunately, in approximately 80 percent of cases, no specific treatment is required.
If you have diverticular disease, a change in your diet to include more fiber is probably all that you need to reduce symptoms. However, you should consult with a doctor to be sure that that is the right course of action.
Another potential cause for blood in the stool is an anal fissure, a condition that is exactly what it sounds like — a break or tear in the skin of the anal canal, similar to the cracks that can occur on your mouth in the form of chapped lips.
An anal fissure can be a superficial wound on the surface of the skin, or it can sometimes go down to the underlying sphincter muscle. They can cause bright red blood to be found on toilet tissue, in undergarments, or in the stool and are often caused by passing a large, hard stool.
To prevent anal fissures, avoid straining when you’re on the toilet, make sure you’re getting enough fiber in your diet, drink plenty of water, and consider switching to a softer toilet paper. If you think you may have an anal fissure, consult with your doctor, who may recommend a topical cream, various medications, or even surgery, depending on the severity of the fissure.
Similarly to diverticular disease, colitis can cause blood in the stool. Colitis is an inflammation of the colon, which can be caused by viral or bacterial infection, parasites, a loss of blood supply to the colon for mechanical reasons, blood clots, or a number of other things.
Because there are so many different causes for colitis, the symptoms that come along with it can vary a lot. It can cause abdominal pain and tenderness, incontinence, fatigue, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, fast or irregular heartbeat, fever and most importantly for this article, recurring bloody diarrhea, which may contain pus.
To determine if you have colitis and, if you do, what the cause is, a doctor will review your medical history, do a physical examination, and possibly order laboratory tests. That often includes a biopsy, where a very small piece of tissue is removed from the bowels for examination under a microscope.
Peptic ulcers may also lead to blood in the stool. A peptic ulcer is an open sore in the lining of the stomach or duodenum, which is the upper end of the small intestine, connected to the stomach. Bright red blood from such ulcers can show up in a person’s stool.
Bacteria or Medication
Peptic ulcers are often caused by a bacterial infection but can also be caused by long term use or high doses of anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. There are a number of tests a doctor can use to determine if you are suffering from peptic ulcers.
There are also two different problems with the esophagus that may result in blood in your stool. If you have varicose veins of the esophagus or tears in your esophagus, it can result in severe blood loss that will be passed out of the body in the stool.
One last cause of blood in the stool that is the second most terrifying is the presence of a growth in the intestinal tract. Polyps, which are benign growths that can form in the intestinal tract and have the potential to become malignant, can sometimes begin to bleed.
But much more terrifying is cancer. Colorectal cancer, which is cancer of the colon or rectum, is the fourth most common cancer in the United States. It often causes bleeding that is not noticeable with the naked eye, though the blood is sometimes visible in the stool.
Speak to Your Doctor
If you ever notice blood in your stool, it’s important to have a doctor evaluate your symptoms. Any details that you can give them about the bleeding will be of help to the doctor in locating the site and ultimately the cause of the bleeding.
A black, tar-colored stool is likely an ulcer or other problem in the upper part of the digestive tract. Bright red blood or maroon-colored stool usually indicates a problem in the lower part of the digestive tract.
Finding the Source
Your doctor will want to get your medical history and do a physical exam. The medical history may reveal one of a number of conditions that can make some of the conditions mentioned previously more likely. After that point, they may need to perform one or more tests to determine the cause of the bleeding.
Among the possible tests they may run, many include inserting a tube through the nose, mouth, or rectum, either to view a specific part of the gastrointestinal tract with a small camera or to remove a small amount of material. Some tests may also include special kinds of X-rays or imaging procedures.
As a general rule, eating a high-fiber diet can help with many of the conditions that can cause blood in the stool. You should consult with your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.