This may be a personal question…but do you ever look at your poop? Why we ask: The color, shape and/or smell of your stools can offer clues about your health that are more important than you may realize.

Check It Out

There’s no need to obsess about your stools, but you should take a look at least every week (or more often if you feel unwell or think something may be wrong). It’s a good idea to know what’s normal for you so that you can report anything out of the ordinary to your doctor.

As far as bowel movements go, “normal” encompasses a wide range—healthy stools can be beige to dark brown…texture can range from firm to a little bit loose…and the average frequency is once or twice a day, but some people only go three times a week.

Most abnormalities last a few days and resolve (perhaps you’ve eaten something you don’t usually eat, or maybe you have a virus). But do take note of anything unusual that lasts for a week or more or recurs. What to watch for…

Bright or dark red blood. Bright red blood on toilet paper typically originates from the anus or the lower part of the intestine—it could be coming from a hemorrhoid or a slight tear in the anal tissue that comes from straining during a bowel movement.

Take note: If this happens once or twice, there’s less cause to worry, but let your doctor know. If there’s a lot of blood or you regularly bleed, even intermittently, make an appointment with your doctor right away, or go to the ER. Bleeding polyps in the colon can produce red blood in the stool, as can diverticula, abnormal pouches that form in the intestine. Your doctor will probably advise a colonoscopy (and possibly an upper GI endoscopy) to investigate.

Black poop. Stools that are black and sticky-looking (or tarry) could indicate that there’s blood in your bowel movements—possibly from an ulcer…a tear in the esophagus…an abnormal blood vessel in the colon…or colon cancer.

Important: Call your doctor right away. He/she will probably order tests (such as a colonoscopy and/or endoscopy) to see where the blood is originating and recommend a treatment plan.

Exception: Some foods and supplements—black licorice, dark berries, iron supplements and medications such as Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate—can make stools black. But check in with your doctor if you have any questions at all.

Note: If you’ve eaten lots of leafy green vegetables, your poop might turn green.

Pale or white stools. Bile, produced in the liver, is what gives stools their brown color. When poop is pale, the liver isn’t releasing enough bile and may be diseased. Gallstones, which block the flow of bile into the intestines, are another cause of light-colored stools. Pancreatic cancer can produce pale stools, too.

Take note: Make an appointment with your doctor to get this checked out. Tests could include an abdominal ultrasound, CT scan or MRI.

Pencil-thin shape. It was once thought that pencil-thin stools were a warning signal for colorectal cancer. Now doctors believe that the size/shape of stools is largely affected by what you eat. People who eat a lot of meat tend to produce smaller stools than vegetarians who tend to get more fiber.

Take note: If you have a sudden and consistent change in stool thickness, it’s best to mention this to your doctor. By itself, it’s not likely to be caused by cancer, but it should be checked out.

Foul odor. Stools are a combination of dead and live bacteria, cells from the lining of the intestine, fiber and other undigested food…and all of this produces odor.

The intensity of the smell depends on what you’ve eaten. High-sulfur foods, such as garlic, broccoli or meats, tend to cause stinky stools. So does sorbitol, an artificial sweetener that’s added to some medications and processed foods. Also, the bacteria in the large intestine vary from person to person with some varieties causing more odor than others. Antibiotics often cause foul-smelling stools because they temporarily disrupt bacterial balance.

Take note: See a doctor if the odor is much stronger than usual or if the smell is accompanied by other digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea, cramps, a persistent increase/decrease in bowel movements, etc.

Possible causes: Celiac disease, in which your body is unable to tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley…an intestinal parasite (such as Giardia)…or a bacterial or viral infection in the intestine.

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