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What is a Normal Bowel Function?

2010 February 4

Because few people are willing to discuss their bowel movements with one another, most of us do not know what is normal.  All folks are different; what is fine for one person may be cause for concern in another.  Please remember that I am not a doctor.  This is a just a general knowledge guideline, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness.

COLOR:  The normal color for stool is generally dark butterscotch or brown, however, certain foods can change this.  If the change in color is temporary, it is probably a reflection of your diet.  For example, beets might make your stool red, lots of leafy greens will turn it green or black.  Talk with your doctor about color changes if they persist over time.

When to Worry:  If stool are consistently a pale creamy color it may be a sign of liver or gallbladder problems.  Stools that have obvious blood are always a cause for concern (this doesn’t mean they are inherently dangerous, but you will need to discuss it with your doctor to be sure).  Another sign of bleeding in the intestinal tract — dark, tarry stools or dark stools that resemble coffee grinds.  Be aware, taking bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) will turn your stool very black.  Finally, if you see lots of mucus in your stools, it is time for a checkup.

CONSISTENCY:  Bowel movements should be relatively easy to pass and have the consistency of a sausage or an unripe banana.  If you put your thumb and figertips together and band the ends with a rubber band, that will give you a good idea of the usual diameter.  If you pass ‘pencil-thin’ stools, you will need to tell your doctor because you might have a polyp or some other obstruction.

When to Worry:  Constipation or diarrhea that doesn’t go away is cause for concern.  Constipation is defined as less than three stools a week, when combined with stools that are small and hard to pass.  You may also feel bloated or flatulent.  The most common causes are not enough fiber, water, or exercise.  Making sure you have enough of all three to prevent constipation. 

Diarrhea refers to loose, watery stools more than three times per day.  It is usually temporary.  Consult with a doctor if it lasts for more than three days, but in the meantime get plenty of fluids to stave off dehydration.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Normal Bowl Movement Stools Stool color

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