What It Means to Have a Normal Bowel Movement

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What is a "normal bowel movement"? It's hard to know if your bowel movements are normal. It's probably not something you discuss with people, including your healthcare provider.

The truth is there's no one definition or description of normal. Everyone's bowel movements are different.

abnormal bowel movement signs
Illustration by Jessica Olah, Verywell

But there is what's considered a range of normal for each of us. So watch for something that's outside of your normal range or that changes over time. Then you can bring that up at a medical visit.

This article defines constipation and diarrhea, looks at the frequency, consistency, and color typical of bowel movements, and common signs that you're off the normal spectrum.

Normal Frequency of Bowel Movements

It's a common belief that you should have a daily bowel movement. But that's not true for everyone. Your normal could be anything from a few times a day to a few times a week.

Constipation is hard, dry stool that is difficult to pass. Diarrhea is watery stool more than three times a day.

Most healthy adults will experience diarrhea or constipation at some point. If it's a consistent change in bowel habits, though, talk to your healthcare provider.

Recap

You have your own "normal" when it comes to bowel movements. The general range for frequency is from three times a day to three times a week. Less than three movements per week is generally considered constipation. Three or more loose stools per day is considered diarrhea.

Constipation

Constipation is common. It's believed to cause about 2.5 million healthcare provider visits each year.

Constipation is:

  • Hard, dry, lumpy stool
  • That's difficult or painful to pass
  • May be accompanied by bloating and discomfort

Chronic dehydration, lack of exercise, and low dietary fiber can lead to constipation. To prevent constipation:

  • Drink enough water each day
  • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days
  • Add fiber to your diet

Get Medical Help When:

  • Movements are abnormal (for you) for more than a week
  • It's painful
  • You find blood on the toilet paper

This is especially true if you're over 50.

Complications of Constipation

Women and older adults are at risk for chronic (frequent) constipation. This causes discomfort. It can also lead to complications.

Straining to pass stool could cause hemorrhoids or an anal fissure (a tear in the skin of the anal canal).

Another potential issue is fecal impaction. That's when hard stool gets stuck in the intestine. If severe, it may require a medical visit or treatment at a hospital.

Straining can also cause rectal prolapse. That's where part of the rectum comes out of your anus. Rectal prolapse can often be treated at home. But some cases require surgery.

Recap

Constipation involves dry, lumpy, hard-to-pass stools. Straining can lead to complications such as hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and prolapse. Ongoing constipation can lead to fecal impaction. Prevent constipation by staying hydrated, being active, and getting enough fiber.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is loose, watery stool more than three times a day. Most adults have diarrhea a few times a year.

It usually lasts a day or two and doesn't need treatment. Causes of diarrhea include:

  • Infection
  • Drug side effects
  • Food intolerance

Get Medical Help When:

  • Diarrhea lasts more than three days
  • Stools are bloody or black
  • You have pain, fever, or a pus discharge

Prolonged diarrhea can cause severe dehydration. That requires emergency care.

Stool Color and Consistency

A bowel movement should be soft and easy to pass. Generally speaking, a stool should be:

  • Brown or golden brown
  • Cohesively formed
  • Textured like peanut butter
  • About the size and shape of a sausage

Stool that varies from this a bit is no cause for alarm. That's especially true if it just happens once.

Many abnormal traits may be due to foods or medication. But they may also signal a serious problem.

  • Blood in the stool: Never normal. Causes range from mild (hemorrhoids) to serious (infection, colon cancer).
  • Black or tarry stools with a foul odor: Can result from certain foods, iron supplements, or internal bleeding high in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
  • Red or maroon stools: Causes include eating red-colored foods or medical conditions including hemorrhoids, diverticular bleeding, colon cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Green stools: Can result from artificially colored foods (especially green), iron supplements, or stool moving slowly through the colon.
  • Pale or clay-colored stools: May result from lack of bile salt (which makes stool brown), antacids, a recent barium enema test, or hepatitis.

Summary

A "normal" bowel movement is what's normal for you.

Constipation is hard stools that are difficult to pass with fewer than three movements per week. Diarrhea is watery stools more than three times per day.

Lifestyle changes to improve stools include eating fiber, drinking water, or exercising.

Stools should be brown, have a peanut-butter texture, and look like a sausage. If you have abnormal colors, it may be due to something you ingested. But it may also be due to serious illness.

If it's abnormal once, it's likely nothing to worry about. If it's consistently abnormal or a change from what you're used to, see a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Most people aren't comfortable talking about bowel movements. Keeping concerns to yourself can be a big mistake, though.

Many digestive problems are easier to treat if caught early. Don't let it go until it's a larger problem.

The only way to be sure is to see your healthcare provider. Sure, it may be uncomfortable. But rest assured they're used to hearing about it.

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10 Sources
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