What It Means When Your Poop Floats

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While it may be surprising to see floating poop, it's usually nothing to be concerned about and is often related to something you had to eat. Here are the two main causes of this type of stool.

Excessive Gas in the Stool

Most of the time, floating stool is the result of something you ate. If you eat something that causes gas (or eat a large meal), the gas mixes in with stool in the intestines. The extra air makes poop less dense, causing it to float when it hits the toilet bowl.

Here are some types of foods that can produce gas:

  • Apples, pears, peaches, prunes
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Asparagus, artichokes, brussels sprouts, broccoli, onions
  • Beans
  • Fruit juices
  • Honey
  • Sodas and soft drinks
  • Sugar-free candies and gum

Many of these foods contain sugars that can also cause excess gas. Prunes, apples, peaches, and sugar-free foods, for instance, contain sorbitol. Sodas, honey, and fruit juices are high in fructose.

People with lactose intolerance (a condition that commonly affects adults of African, Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian descent) may have floating poop if they consume milk and milk products. With low levels of the enzyme (lactase) needed to digest the sugar (lactose) in milk, they may have bloating and gas after consuming dairy, which can lead to floating stool. In addition, floating stools are frequently experienced by people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

If your floating stool is caused by gas-producing food, your poop should return to normal pretty quickly after you reduce intake of the foods that bother you.

Fat in the Stool (Steatorrhea)

Although most floating poop is the result of something you ate, it could also mean that dietary fat isn't being properly absorbed by the body and ends up in your stool, a condition known as steatorrhea. Often soft, bulky, and foul-smelling, these oily stools frequently stick to the toilet bowl and are difficult to flush away.

Gastrointestinal infections can cause steatorrhea (like the small intestine parasitic infection giardiasis), but it can also result from the use of certain medications or conditions known to disrupt the absorptive lining of the intestines (such as Crohn's diseaseceliac diseasebacterial overgrowthcystic fibrosisGraves' disease, and short bowel syndrome).

Steatorrhea can also occur as a symptom of conditions affecting the pancreas, gallbladder, or liver. Such conditions are often marked by decreased levels of lipase (a digestive enzyme produced by the pancreas) and/or bile salts (a type of substance formed in the liver). Both are needed to break down and absorb fat.

Here's a look at several conditions that can cause this type of floating stool:

  • Chronic pancreatitis. Often linked to alcoholism or gallstones, chronic pancreatitis is characterized by inflammation of the pancreas. Along with floating stool, symptoms include abdominal pain, back pain, abdominal bloating, and weight loss. It is also associated with diabetes.
  • Sclerosing cholangitis. Sometimes associated with ulcerative colitis, sclerosing cholangitis is marked by inflammation, scarring, and destruction of the bile ducts inside and outside of the liver. Symptoms may include floating stools, fatigue, itchy skin, fever/chills, jaundice, and dark urine.

  • Choledocholithiasis. The presence of one or more gallstones in the common bile duct. In many cases, the condition causes no symptoms unless the stone obstructs the bile duct. In addition to floating stools, symptoms commonly include pain in the right upper or middle upper abdomen (lasting for at least 30 minutes), fever, jaundice, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Pancreatic cancer. A form of cancer affecting the pancreas.

When to See Your Doctor

While stools that occasionally float shouldn't alarm you, it's important to consult your doctor if you notice changes in your bowel habits lasting longer than two weeks or experience other symptoms (like nausea, dizziness, weight loss, abdominal pain, or fever).

Some types of stool changes (particularly steatorrhea) may be symptoms of a condition that requires treatment.

Treatment for Floating Stools

Floating stool due to excess gas is often harmless and goes away without treatment. Since diet can play a role in the development of floating stools, it's possible that adjusting your diet may help with this issue. For example, some healthcare providers may suggest removing one or two foods from your diet at a time to test whether those foods may be contributing to floating stools, or keeping a record of the foods you eat and your bowel movements.

If a certain food worsens gas, you may not have to avoid it. Over-the-counter enzyme supplements are available to help digest foods such as beans and milk. Eating smaller portions can also help.

The treatment for steatorrhea depends on the underlying condition. For instance, cystic fibrosis treatment typically involves digestive enzyme supplements that are similar to those normally released by the pancreas.

A Word From Verywell

Having floating poop from time to time is quite common and often food-related. The biggest culprits are lactose in milk products, soluble fiber, or sugars in food, whether it's raffinose in beans, fructose in fruit, or sorbitol in prunes, apples, or peaches.

Many of the foods that can cause gas also have positive attributes. Beans, for instance, have about 10 grams of fiber per cup and are rich in antioxidants. Instead of avoiding these foods, try eating smaller servings, spacing out your intake over the day, and considering over-the-counter enzyme supplements that help the body digest beans. Also avoid large meals, which can put extra pressure on the digestive system.

If the problem appears to be regular (or you notice other symptoms), speak to your doctor. While it may be embarrassing to bring up, your doctor hears about issues like this all the time and can help identify any underlying conditions that may be responsible for your stool changes.

Sources:

Bailey J, Carter NJ, Neher JO. FPIN's Clinical Inquiries: Effective management of flatulence. Am Fam Physician. 2009 Jun 15;79(12):1098-100.

Bouchoucha M, Devroede G, Benamouzig R. Are floating stools associated with specific functional bowel disorders? Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2015 Aug;27(8):968-73.

Ohge H, Levitt MD. Intestinal gas. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 16.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using any alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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