What Can Cause Pale Stool or Clay-Colored Stool?

Stools That Are Pale In Color May Be Due To Gallbladder Or Liver Disease

Does your stool appear whitish, or clay-like? It can be the aftereffect of a test using barium. But, if there was no such test done recently, a doctor should be consulted.. Image © Ruth Jenkinson / Getty Images

Stools that are pale, white, or look like clay or putty may be the result of a lack of bile or by a blockage in the bile ducts. Stools that are light in color or look like clay can also occur after a test in the colon that uses barium (such as a barium enema), because the barium may be passed in the stool. But in the absence of such a test being done recently, pale stools could be the result of something else happening in the digestive tract.

The inability of the digestive system to absorb fats properly may also result in stools that are light in color (yellow to gray) and appear greasy. The medical term "acholic" is used to refer to light-colored stools that result from a lack of bile.

Having a stool that is white or pale just once, or rarely, might not be a concern, but when the color is consistently too light, it is something that should be discussed with a doctor. Healthy stools come in many sizes, shapes, and colors. When it comes to how often you move your bowels or what your stool looks like, every person is different, and there is a spectrum of "normal," rather than a specific set of rules. There are times, however, when what you're seeing in the toilet bowl is probably outside of what would be considered in the normal range, and should be investigated by a physician. 

Causes Of Pale Stools

The biliary system is the drainage system of the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas.

Bile is created in the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and is released into the first section of the small intestine (the duodenum) while food is passing through. Bile is what gives stool its brown color, so if bile is not being produced or if the bile ducts are blocked, the result could be stool that is light.

Common causes of stool that is pale or clay colored include:

Symptoms Associated With Pale Stool

Clay colored stool that is caused by certain medical conditions may be accompanied by a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes (jaundice) or darkened urine. If symptoms of jaundice occur, a physician should be consulted immediately. While jaundice itself is not actually a serious condition, the presence of jaundice along with pale stools could mean that there is an obstruction in a bile duct or that there is an infection in the liver. Both of these conditions could be serious, and should be discussed with a physician in order to receive prompt treatment.

Diagnosing The Underlying Condition

In order to treat pale stools, the underlying cause of the problem must first be diagnosed. In addition to a complete medical history, some of the tests that might be used to make a diagnosis are:

Treating Pale Stool

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause. If the cause is the malabsorption of fats, a change in diet and vitamin supplements may be prescribed. In the case of blocked bile ducts, surgery may be required to open the ducts. If the acholic stools are a symptom of another condition, such as hepatitis, the underlying cause should be treated.

The Bottom Line

People who haven't recently had a barium enema or a barium swallow should see a doctor about pale stools. This is particularly true if any other symptoms are occurring along with it, especially jaundice or pain. 


Dugdale DC. Stools - pale or clay-colored. MedlinePlus 2 Sep 2012. 

Picco MF. Stool color: When to worry. Mayo Clinic 12 Oct 2012.

S. Mark Taper Foundation Imaging Center. Barium Swallow. Cedars-Sinai 2013. 

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