Maybe it’s instinct. Maybe it’s something we learn as kids. Somehow, many people tend to glance at their bowel movements before pushing the flusher. And for most people, it’s a non-event.
However, for a small percentage of us, an irregularity appears in the stool. Is it food dye from that red slushy? Too many iron supplements? Or is that…blood?
Each year, an estimated 540,000 people are hospitalized in the United States because of gastrointestinal bleeding. However, the bleeding itself is not an illness – it is a symptom of a range of other conditions, and not all should cause panic.
Still, gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding is not normal and requires attention.
Where Does the Blood Come From?
A healthy stool gets its brown color primarily from bile. When GI bleeding occurs, poop can look bright red to black, depending on its source within the digestive tract. And the GI tract has a lot of sources: the esophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, large intestine (colon), rectum, and anus.
Based on the cause of the bleeding, a patient may experience acute or chronic symptoms: Acute GI bleeding is sudden and can be severe; chronic GI bleeding is lighter, but is longer-lasting and can come and go.
What to Do If You See Blood
Those who detect either type of bleeding should remain calm and think about how they feel, because they likely are experiencing other signs of the underlying illness. These following conditions, and their symptoms, can help to further identify the reason for a bloody stool.
Sometimes called piles, hemorrhoids are the result of a vein or group of veins in the anal region that have become swollen and bulge – similar to varicose veins. This is often due to pressure. Symptoms: Patients may experience painless bleeding from the veins being scratched or broken; discomfort and itching; hard lumps near the anus (from blood clots); and swollen veins pushing through the anus (prolapse). Learn more here.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) IBD takes place when the immune system attacks the cells of the bowels, causing persistent inflammation that could lead to bleeding. It can occur in the colon (colitis) or deep in the intestines (Crohn’s disease). Symptoms: Other common signs of IBD include diarrhea, an urgent and frequent need to go to the bathroom, joint pain, and abdominal pain. Learn more here.
Colon cancer or stomach cancer
When small clumps of stomach cells or polyps begin to grow abnormally, they can develop into stomach or colon cancer. Colon cancer forms more slowly, however, usually taking five to 10 years. Symptoms: In addition to blood in the stool, those with colon or stomach cancer might experience abdominal pain including gas and cramps, fatigue, and changes in bowel movements.
Don’t Panic – Call Your Gastroenterologist
These specific symptoms should alert a visit with a gastroenterologist as soon as possible. Patients who experience dizziness, low blood pressure, weakness, and/or anemia (a sign of chronic GI bleeding) may need to visit the emergency room. A series of tests that involve scopes and tiny cameras, such as an endoscopy or colonoscopy, are effective at determining the source of the bleeding.
And good news: Many conditions that cause GI bleeding can be treated during diagnosis.
Afterward, keep checking that poop. Doing so is normal, and it ensures your GI tract stays normal, too.