Bowel movements…not an everyday topic for discussion. Except for CNAs, who assist patients with bowel movements every day and are the first to notice any change. Your observations and documentation are important. When there is a change in color, be prepared to accurately describe what you notice. While there are reasons for color changes, including diet, it also might be an early indication of illness. Learn what colors can mean with this handy guide.
“Stool Colors and What They Mean”
Brown: Brown is the normal color of stool, ranging between light to dark brown. It means that the liver is producing the right amount of bile to mix with enzymes from the pancreas and the normal bacteria living in the gut.
Green: When food moves too quickly through the digestive tract, bile doesn’t have time to break down, causing the bowel movement to appear green, the color of bile. Diarrhea is often green. Foods that can turn stool green: Leafy vegetables, especially spinach and kale, as well as green food coloring used for items such as Jell-O, drinks, or popsicles. Iron supplements can also cause a green tint.
Yellow: Yellow stools are usually also “greasy” and foul-smelling, indicating a problem with fat digestion. It means the pancreas isn’t producing the enzyme that breaks down fat, so the intestines can’t absorb it. The cause is usually celiac disease, a condition that requires the patient to follow a gluten free diet.
White: When a bowel movement is pale, clay-colored, or chalky, there is likely a blockage in the bile duct that comes from the liver. The cause could be gallstones, cancer of the pancreas, or cancer of the bile duct. Very large doses of anti-diarrheal medications, such as Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol, can also temporarily turn the stool white.
Black: Bleeding anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract, from the esophagus to the small intestine, will cause stool to be black, as well as sticky and tarry. Other things that can make a bowel movement turn black: Pepto-Bismol, iron supplements, and black licorice. If the color does not return to brown after stopping these substances, prompt medical attention is required.
Red: Red often means bleeding in the lower G.I. tract. Dark red comes from the large intestine (colon) and bright red comes from hemorrhoids. Other causes can be Crohn’s disease, colitis, or infections. Any type of red stool must be immediately reported and investigated. Beets, cranberries, tomato juice or soup, and red food coloring can also cause red stools, so check your patient’s recent diet; beets will also cause urine to be pink.
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