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Stool Color Changes

What Is Normal and What You Should Be Concerned About

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Updated May 16, 2014

Boy Standing by Toilet
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Taxi/Getty Images

Friends of mine told me they were concerned that their four-year-old son’s stools had taken on a dark purple color. They had already made an appointment with the pediatrician when they figured out the problem -– the kid had found their secret stash of grape-flavored fruit-roll-ups! Many people become concerned about the various shapes, colors and sizes that they see in their bowel movements. As you can see by the preschooler’s tale, stools can change dramatically without necessarily signaling serious illness. It can be hard to know when to worry and when you can breathe easily.

People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have an unique challenge in that the disorder, by definition, involves a change in the appearance of bowel movements, leaving them with very understandable concerns about the color of stool.

Typical Stool Colors

Stool can be a variety of different colors without indicating the presence of serious disease. Here are some common stool colors:

  • Dark brown
  • Light brown
  • Orange
  • Tan
  • Yellow

Colors to Be Concerned About

The following colors are not typical and should immediately be brought to the attention of your physician:

  • Bright red
  • Dark red
  • Black or tar-colored

If you have stools this color, don't panic. Although it is true that red- or black-colored stools suggest bleeding and therefore could indicate the presence of colon cancer, there are many other not-so-scary possibilities, such as acute infection, a tear in the tissue of the anus (anal fissure), hemorrhoids, or non-cancerous polyps.

Don't Check Too Often!

A person who suffers from an eating disorder will cause himself unnecessary anguish by checking the scale constantly. If the numbers are up, they become upset. The problem is that scales are not precise instruments and fluctuations in scale measurements are not necessarily indicative of weight gain. This same principle can be applied to daily examination of your bowel movements. Therefore a much better strategy would be a weekly checking. That way, you can be confident that you are monitoring your health, but not exposing yourself to unnecessary emotional distress.

IBS and Stool Changes

As stated above, IBS by definition involves a change in stool appearance. So, yes, your stool may look abnormal to you. Just remember that abnormal does not necessarily mean that your doctors have missed a more serious disease. Typical IBS stools can be:

  • Filled with mucus
  • Thin and pencil-like
  • Hard, lumpy and difficult to pass
  • Soft, loose and watery

This advice to not check the appearance of stools too often is especially relevant for IBS sufferers. The psychology of IBS can be similar to that of post-traumatic stress disorder. When you have been traumatized by severe symptoms, your brain automatically wants to search for signs related to your disorder. This can result in hypervigilance -- a constant state of anxious watching and worrying. The catch-22 problem with IBS is that this anxious state can trigger or exacerbate the very symptoms that you are worried about. Thus, it is important for you to work actively to reduce your anxiety whenever you can. One way to do this is to reduce your focus on the way that your stool looks.

How to Find a GI Doctor

Sources:

Longstreth, G., Thompson, W., Chey, W., Houghton, L., Mearin, F. & Spiller, R. “ Functional Bowel Disorders. Gastroenterology 2006 130:1480-1491.

Thompson, W. “Alarm Symptoms: A Cause for Alarm?” International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Fact Sheet.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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