What Does Blood in Your Stool Mean?

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Blood in the stool could be a sign of a more serious problem.
Blood in the stool could be a sign of a more serious problem. (Image: disables bathroom image by Wolszczak from Fotolia.com)

It can be a scary thing to look at the toilet paper or into the bowl and see blood on or in your stools. Fortunately, most causes of blood in the stool are not serious and can be easily remedied. Some instances of blood in the stool can be cause for alarm, however, so consulting with your health care provider is important if this happens to you.

Significance of Blood in the Stool

Blood in the stool is typically due to hemorrhoids or anal fissures, which is a tear in the lining of the anus. Both of these causes are easily remedied and are not serious. Blood in the stool can also indicate colon polyps, colon cancer, colitis and diverticulitis, and these are all diseases that require medical attention.

Identifying Characteristics of Bloody Stool

If the bleeding is coming from higher up in the GI tract, the blood is likely to be black or tarry in nature. Bleeding in the stomach is typically black in the stool, as stomach acids turn stool black. If the blood is dark red or includes clots (clumps of blood aggregate), then it is likely not from a hemorrhoid or an anal fissure and more likely from higher up in the digestive tract.

Tests and Procedures

Your health care provider is likely to perform an overall health assessment and physical at the beginning of your appointment to discuss your bloody stools. Your physician will perform a rectal exam, at which point he will look for hemorrhoids and anal fissures. If nothing is found upon a rectal exam, your health care provider may perform an anoscopy, sigmoidoscopy or a colonoscopy depending on your situation.

Causes of Bloody Stool

Occult bleeding cannot be seen with the naked eye. It can come from many sources but must be determined by microscopic laboratory testing. These patients may often have anemia, as does a patient who has recognized bleeding and who lets it go without seeking medical help. There are many reasons for the loss of blood, which shows up on or in the stools when the bowels are moved. Trauma can result from constipation or constant diarrhea; an external blow that causes tears in the colon can lead to bleeding. More serious causes of bleeding are colon cancer, chronic ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, diverticulitis, septic ulcer, stomach cancer and polyps--which, if left untreated, can cause cancer. There may be tears in the esophagus, esophageal varices or dilated blood vessels, which are mainly associated with cirrhosis that causes bleeding. Bowel ischemia is a lack of blood flow in the intestines that also is a cause of blood in the stools. These are all serious medical issues that must be treated by a doctor.

Treatment

Treatment of bloody stools depends largely on the cause. Many simple treatments will easily deal with hemorrhoids and anal fissures, whereas colon polyps, colon cancer, diverticulitis and colitis will need more extensive medical treatment. Seek medical advice from your health care provider if you see or suspect blood in your stool. Even though the cause is not likely to be serious--only a full physical and examination from your health care provider will be able to tell you for sure.

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