Healthy and Unhealthy Stool - Poop Colors Explained

What does your poop say about your health?

Peter Cade/Getty Images

Although you may not pay attention to the way your stools look, noticing them can help you pick up when something isn't right or if there are changes you can make to have healthier bowels.

Read on to get a sense of what different types of poop may mean, from stool that is green, yellow, pale, dark, red, infrequent, or has mucus in it. Keep in mind that you should always talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may be experiencing.

What Does a Normal Bowel Movement Look Like?

While it's normal for bowel movements to vary from day to day, they should generally be smooth, well-formed, and be some shade of brown. They should leave the body with no straining or discomfort, have a toothpaste-like consistency, and should look more like a banana than a pencil.

While they may have odor, the smell shouldn't be horribly unpleasant. Feces shouldn't stick to the toilet bowl regularly. You shouldn't see mucus or blood in the toilet or when you're wiping.

Stool That Sinks Quickly

Although stool normally sinks or floats, lighter stool tends to contain more fiber and rapidly sinking stool may indicate that you aren't getting enough fluids or fiber-rich foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. This stool is often dark because it stays in the intestines for a prolonged time.

Pale Stool

Stool is usually some shade of brown and can be influenced by what you eat.

Stool that is light-colored (either pale, white, gray or clay colored) is not considered normal if it occurs frequently. Bile salts give stool its characteristic brown color. If there is decreased bile flow caused by a condition affecting your gallbladder, liver, or pancreas (such as cholecystitis, gallstones, giardia, hepatitis, chronic pancreatitis, or cirrhosis), there may be a lack of bile in stool, making them pale or clay colored.

Pale stool may also be shiny or greasy, float, and foul-smelling, due to undigested fat in the stool. You should see your doctor if you regularly have pale stools.

Certain medications such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol®, Kaopectate®) or anti-diarrheal drugs may also result in a light-colored stool. Stool may become temporarily pale after a barium enema test.

Floating Stool

Stool that floats occasionally is often nothing to be concerned about. If you notice that your stool floats consistently, it could be a sign that you're not absorbing oil properly. This type of stool is called steatorrhea and it often has odor, sticks to the side of the bowl, or is difficult to flush away. Floating stool can also be caused by excess gas. Learn more about floating stool.

Green Stool

Seeing green stool in the toilet bowl can be alarming, but there are some common reasons why it occurs. Continue reading about the causes of green stool.

Mucus in Stool

Although the presence of mucus in stool is common, you normally don't see it because it is typically clear. Noticeable white or yellow mucus may indicate inflammation or irritation in the wall of the intestines and be a symptom of an underlying health issue.

 Mucus in stool can occur with either constipation or diarrhea. Read more about the causes of mucus in stool.

Loose Stool

Two common causes of loose stool or diarrhea are gastrointestinal infections or maldigestion (e.g. lactose intolerance). Learn more about the causes of loose stool.

Pencil Thin Stool

Excess straining can result in a stool that is long and pencil thin because bearing down causes the anal sphincter to contract and narrow the opening of the anus.

Consistently thin stools could be caused by a bowel obstruction. Benign rectal polyps, hemorrhoids, prostate enlargement, colon, rectal or prostate cancer are some of the conditions that can cause obstruction, so you should see your primary care provider if you notice pencil-thin stools regularly.

Yellow Stool

While yellow stool can be caused by sweet potatoes, carrots, and foods with yellow food coloring, it can also indicate excess fat in the stool, which can be caused by a malabsorption disorder like celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or a disorder that prevents the pancreas from providing enzymes that digest fat. This type of stool is usually greasy and foul-smelling.

If the onset is sudden, yellow stool can also be a sign of a bacterial infection in the intestines. Prolonged yellow stool may also be caused by conditions such as giardiasis or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Yellow stool may also indicate problems with the gallbladder and liver. Bile salts from the liver give stool its brownish color and when bile output is diminished, it may first appear as yellow stool.

Infrequent Stool

With constipation, infrequent or hard stool is passed and is often accompanied by straining. It is most commonly associated with a lack of both dietary fiber and water. Learn about the causes and remedies for constipation.

Stool That Comes Out in Small Pellets

Pellet stool is stool that comes out in small, round balls rather than long and smooth. It is often due to a lack of dietary fiber, as fiber forms a gel in the intestines when it is fermented by colon bacteria and combined with water.  Find out more about the causes of pellet stool.

Undigested Food in Stool

Certain plant foods such as corn and grape skins may appear in recognizable pieces in stool because humans lack the necessary enzymes to digest certain components of plant cell walls.

Dark Stool

Stool that is almost black, dark or tarry with a thick consistency may be an indication of bleeding in the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract. The most common medical conditions that cause dark, tar-like stool includes duodenal or gastric ulcers, esophageal varices, Mallory-Weiss tear (which can be linked to alcoholism), and gastritis.

Certain foods, supplements, and medications can temporarily turn stool black, such as:

  • Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol®, Kaopectate®)
  • Iron supplements
  • Activated charcoal supplements
  • Dark foods such as black licorice, blueberries, Oreo cookies, blackberries, grape juice, or blueberries

Stool can also appear darker with constipation. Dark green stool from bile that hasn't had time to break down may look black in certain lighting.

If you experience this type of stool and it is not from food or supplements, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Bright Red Stool

When there is blood in stool, the color depends on where it is in the digestive tract. Blood from the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract, such as the stomach, will look dark by the time it exits the body as a bowel movement. Blood that is bright red, on the other hand, is more likely to come from bleeding in the lower gastrointestinal tract, such as the large intestine or rectum, due to conditions such as arteriovenous malformations, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, ulcerative colitis, diverticulosis, or colon cancer.

Bright red stool is commonly caused by red food coloring (e.g. red or grape Kool-Aid or other drink mixes, gelatin, ice pops, red candy, red frosting, red licorice), beets, cranberries, or tomato juice or soup. Red medicines such as Amoxicillin may also turn stool red.

Blood in stool doesn't always appear bright red. Blood may be also present in stool but not visible, called "occult" blood. A test called the fecal occult blood test is used to detect hidden blood in stool.

Final Thoughts

Talk with your healthcare provider if you're concerned about your stool or have noticed changes. If your stool appears bright red or black (which may be due to the presence of blood), is consistently thin like a pencil, or if you have other symptoms, seek prompt medical attention.

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 alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

Continue Reading