Types of Poop and What Your Stool Can Tell You About Your Health
Looking for the scoop on types of poop? It may not be a topic of daily conversation, but your bowel movements can tell you quite a bit about the state of your health. Here's what you need to know.
Discussing the types of poop may seem disgusting or at least embarrassing, but paying attention to what’s coming out of you can give you great insight into your health. A bowel movement is the last stop your food makes as it goes through your digestive tract. As it turns out, what is left over after your body has absorbed all possible nutrients from your food are the bits that you couldn’t digest, bacteria, salt, and some intestinal substances that assist with processing your meals.
Taking a close look at your stool can tell you quite a bit about the state of your health, especially when coupled with an understanding of what your poop is telling you.
Many gastroenterologists refer to the Bristol Stool Chart when talking about the issue of consistency, and encourage their patients to refer to the chart when describing their bowel movements to their physicians. “There are seven consistencies represented by the chart,” explains colon and rectal surgeon Jeffrey Nelson, MD, who is the surgical director at the Center for Inflammatory Bowel and Colorectal Diseases at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. The consistency of normal stool, as represented by the third and fourth categories in the chart, should be in a sausage shape, either smooth or with cracks on the surface.
When stool falls into one of the first two categories (from separate hard lumps to lumpy, sausage-like stool), that’s considered constipation. Constipation usually goes along with having fewer than three bowel movements per week, according to colorectal surgeon, Lynn O’Connor, MD, director of Colon and Rectal Surgery of New York and the section chief of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Mercy Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital in New York. We’ll talk more about “frequency” in a bit.
Constipation is the most common gastrointestinal complaint, with about four million people in the United States experiencing it frequently, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mechanically speaking, constipation is caused by the intestines absorbing too much water from food. This can be the result of:
- Not enough liquids in the diet
- Certain medications
- Lack of exercise
- Lack of dietary fiber
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn’s disease (an autoimmune disorder that targets the gut)
- Frequently “holding it in”
- Laxative overuse
Never ignore constipation because, whatever the cause, it can lead to uncomfortable and unpleasant complications such as hemorrhoids, fissures, and rectal bleeding.
Stools that fall into one of the last three categories on the Bristol scale—soft blobs with clear-cut edges, mushy, or entirely liquid—are considered diarrhea, and they indicate your food is passing too quickly through the digestive system. Diarrhea can be a sign that you aren’t eating enough fiber, according to Dr. O’Connor. Therefore, upping your fiber intake might help; you might also want to check out these diarrhea home remedies. Often, these types of poops are a sign your body is trying to flush out a problem, such as:
- Food poisoning
- Infections, including Clostridioides difficile, or C. diff, which is almost always accompanied by stool with a distinct and noxious odor
- Parasites, including tapeworm
- Undigestible “foods” including sugar substitutes like xylitol and sorbitol
If your diarrhea is chronic, you should definitely see a doctor to determine the cause. Potential sources of trouble can be celiac disease (an inability to tolerate gluten), Crohn’s disease, or colitis (inflammation from an infection or an autoimmune attack). Diarrhea also happens to be one of the few non-respiratory symptoms of Covid-19.
If your types of poop occasionally fall into a non-normal category on the Bristol Stool Chart, you don’t have to be alarmed. However, if you have pencil-thin stools, that can be a sign of a physical blockage in the lower GI tract indicating a growth, scarring, or another worrisome condition. If your stool suddenly changes from “normal” to pencil-thin, you’ll want to have that checked out by a doctor, Dr. Thomas advises. So although occasional thin stools are OK, if they are consistently pencil-thin check with a doctor.
According to a 2017 study using data from a nationwide survey, the vast majority of individuals (95 percent) move their bowels three to 21 times per week. And according to our gastroenterological experts, anything in that range counts as normal. “Some of my patients are surprised to hear that a normal frequency for bowel movements is anywhere from three per day to three times per week,” Dr. O’Connor says. But it’s also important to consider what your normal is. If you usually move your bowels five times a week, and suddenly, you’re doing so a lot more frequently, it may be valuable to seek medical advice if the new pattern continues. (Here’s more about how often you should poop and the signs you might have a digestive problem.)
Getty Images, thehealthy.com
Generally speaking, a normal stool is brown thanks to the presence of a bile pigment called stercobilin—it’s produced when the hemoglobin in red blood cells breaks down, explains to Austin, Texas, gastroenterologist, Harry Thomas, MD. Although bile begins as greenish-yellow, says Dr. Nelson, it turns increasingly brown as it travels through the gut. The longer it takes for waste to make its way through the gut, the browner the stool will appear; the faster it goes, the closer to greenish-yellow it will appear. So although brown is the normal color, there are many variations.
Some medications can also stain stool, Dr. Thomas says. For example, bismuth (the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol) can color stool black. So can taking iron supplements and ingesting activated charcoal. Just keep an eye out for a tarry quality to your stools, especially when accompanied by an unusually offensive smell: This can indicate bleeding from the upper portion of the GI tract; the black color is due to the digestion of hemoglobin from red blood cells.
Pale or clay-colored stool
If you’re passing either pale or clay-colored stools, you have a cause for concern, Dr. Nelson says. This can be a sign that the flow of bile is obstructed, he explains, “which could be anything from a gallstone blocking the bile duct to nasty tumors, such as pancreatic cancer and bile duct cancer.” Chronic pancreatitis that has scarred the bile duct also can cause this. Pancreatic cancer is only a concern if the stool color is combined with worrisome symptoms such as dark urine and a greasy or oily stool. In any event, pale or clay-colored stools (also called acholic) should be evaluated promptly and aggressively, Dr. Nelson advises.
You may remember that a green stool can be a function of how quickly food is traveling through your gut. This could be the result of a metabolic issue such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also be due to something in your diet, notes Dr. Thomas. Foods that can turn your poop green include:
- Green vegetables (leafy greens, peppers, peas, asparagus)
- Green fruits (grapes, honeydew, kiwi, avocado)
- Pistachio nuts
- Hemp seeds
- Green herbs (parsley, basil, cilantro)
- Matcha tea
- Anything containing green food coloring
Here are nine ways you can relieve IBS symptoms naturally.
Yellow stool can be caused by yellow and orange foods such as turmeric, carrots, yams, and any food containing yellow food coloring, says Dr. O’Connor. However, yellow stool can sometimes be due to metabolic conditions that interfere with digestion and absorption, including celiac disease. Yellow stool can also be caused by liver issues, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, Dr. Thomas says. Accordingly, continuing yellow stool should always be evaluated by a physician.
The rule that your food can influence the color of your poop is especially true with red stuff, according to Dr. Nelson. Take note if you happen to be a fan of:
- Red Jell-O
- Red Kool-Aid
- Red candy such as licorice
- Anything with red food coloring
- Any naturally occurring red produce (such as beets, red peppers, rhubarb, tomatoes, cranberries, paprika).
Because reddish stools can also be a sign of bleeding from the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract, discuss this with your GP, advises Dr. Thomas.
When to see a doctor
In addition to chronic diarrhea and constipation and certain problematic types of poop mentioned above, the following signs should prompt you to call your physician. Your symptoms may turn out to be nothing, but checking in with your GP can help you rule out serious trouble.
The presence of blood
It can be alarming to see actual fresh, red blood after elimination, but this is most often due to a benign and treatable condition like hemorrhoids or anal fissures. More serious intestinal bleeding leads to tarry black stools, not red blood on the surface of the bowel movement, mentioned previously. Nevertheless, the presence of blood in stool is not normal, points out Dr. Thomas.
When poop floats
You might notice that your bowel movements tend to sink. Stool that floats higher in the water may be caused by the presence of gas in the GI tract; if you’re eating more fruits and vegetables, it could explain the buoyancy of your poop. However, if your floaters are greasy and foul-smelling, this could be a sign of problems with your pancreas, including chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer. According to Dr. Nelson, when the pancreas isn’t functioning properly, it no longer secretes the necessary enzymes that help break down fat so that it can be absorbed along the GI tract. Instead, it travels through the digestive system, ends up in your stool, and leads to floaters. Giardia also causes stools that float, as does IBS, IBD, Celiac.
When poop won’t flush
Another sign of pancreatic insufficiency is a stool that sticks to the bowl and is difficult to flush—though this can also be a sign of gastrointestinal infections and celiac disease.
The presence of mucus
While it can be normal to pass some amount of mucus along with stool, note both Dr. Thomas and Dr. Nelson, large amounts of mucus can signal IBS.
When it smells worse
Yes, most types of poop stink, but according to Palm Beach, Florida, gastroenterologist Glenn H. Englander, MD, you should be concerned about smells that are particularly strange or foul. Certain illnesses—C. diff is one—will crank up the stink on your poop. C. diff sickens nearly half a million people in the United States each year; you’ll need antibiotics to clear it up, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When you itch while pooping
There are many possible reasons for itchy skin down there, but when your anus feels itchy while you’re defecating, it could be a sign of pinworms, according to Dr. Thomas, who notes that they can sometimes actually be seen on the skin or on the surface of feces.
If you’re having trouble finding a diagnosis for your bowel troubles or you’re looking for people with similar troubles to yours, these organizations can help out.
- MedicineNet: Medical Definition of Fear of Feces
- Penn Medicine: The Scoop on Poop: What Dos Your Poop Say About Your Health?
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: Constipation
- CDC: What is C.diff?
- Nature Reviews: Gastroenterology & Hepatology: What are normal bowel movement patterns?
- Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: Stools—pale or clay-colored
- UC San Diego Health: End Results: What color is your poop and other pressing fecal matters
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: 5 Things Your Poop Can Tell You About Your Health
- Rush Medical System: 5 Facts About No. 2
- Glenn H. Englander, MD, Palm Beach, Florida gastroenterologist
- Jeffrey Nelson, MD, FACS, FASCRS, colon and rectal surgeon and surgical director at The Center for Inflammatory Bowel and Colorectal Diseases at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.
- Lynn O'Connor, MD, MPH, FACS, FASCRS, colorectal surgeon, director of Colon and Rectal Surgery of New York, Section Chief of Colon and Rectal Surgery, Mercy Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital in New York.
- Harry Thomas, MD, Austin, Texas gastroenterologist