Should You Worry About Changes in Your Stool's Appearance?

Our bodies often give us clues that something is wrong. Throats get sore, teeth start to ache, skin rashes develop. Such symptoms prompt us to investigate further, typically by seeing a health professional, to pinpoint the underlying cause.


Should You Be Worried?

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A change in the appearance of your stool can also be an indication that there is something not quite right with your body. Although there is wide variability as to what a normal stool can look like, there are also some significant changes to stool appearance that may warrant follow-up. Review the following slides to look at stool changes that are not considered normal or typical.

Remember, if the appearance of your stool has changed, it is essential that you bring it to the attention of your doctor.


Hard Stools

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Hard stools are those pebbly nuggets that are hard to pass. Sometimes the pebbles lump together into one larger mass that passes through in a single bowel movement. In such cases, there may be a sharp edge to the front of this lump. At other times, only a single pebble or a few little nuggets make their way out during a bowel movement.

Hard stools indicate that the fecal matter lacks sufficient moisture, typically because it has been in the large intestine for too long awaiting evacuation.

Some of the more common causes of hard stool include:

  • Constipation
  • Lack of adequate water intake
  • Lack of dietary fiber
  • Waiting too long to have a bowel movement
  • Health problems with constipation as a symptom
  • Medications with constipation as a side effect

Loose Stools

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Loose stools are those that pass through the rectum with a loose, watery appearance. Most often loose stools are associated with the frequent bowel movements of diarrhea. At times, loose stool may be accompanied by strong urges for passage or a sense of urgency to get to a bathroom quickly. Typically, stools become looser and more watery with repeated trips to the bathroom.

Loose stools can be caused by:

  • Diet
  • Stress
  • Intestinal infection
  • Health problems with diarrhea as a symptom
  • Medications with diarrhea as a side effect

Floating Stools

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Floating stools can be caused by something relatively harmless or be an indicator of a more serious health problem.

Your floating stools are not something to be too concerned about if they are:

  • Infrequent
  • Accompanied by intestinal gas
  • Associated with a recent diet change

If you start to experience floating stools on a regular basis, it is essential to tell your doctor. Floating stools may be the result of too much fat in your stool, a condition known as steatorrhea.

Other symptoms of steatorrhea include:

  • Foul smell
  • Oily appearance
  • Soiling episodes

Steatorrhea may indicate a problem with fat malabsorption. This means that fats are not being broken down and digested completely at the level of the small intestine. This may be the result of a lack of adequate amounts of pancreatic enzymes and/or bile acids. The cause of these insufficiencies include:

  • Certain diseases such as pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis
  • Gallbladder removal
  • Gallstones
  • Medication side effects

Strangely Colored Stools

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Normal stools can come in a range of colors, including:

  • Different hues of brown
  • Orange
  • Tan
  • Yellow

The following stool color changes should be brought to the attention of your doctor:

  • Black or tar-colored
  • Green
  • Pale, clay-colored
  • Red - bright or dark

Mucus Covered Stools

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Mucus is that clear or slightly yellow gunky substance that sometimes is eliminated alongside the fecal matter of a bowel movement.

Small amounts of mucus on the stool is considered to be normal. Larger amounts indicate the presence of an infection or a more chronic health problem.


Bloody Stools

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If you see any sign of blood in your stool, you must bring it immediately to the attention of your doctor. The blood may appear bright or dark red and may or may not include clots. Black or tar-colored stools can also be a sign of the presence of blood, but not always.

Blood in stools does not always mean that there is something dangerously wrong with you. It could just be the result of a bleeding hemorrhoid or anal fissure.

However, there are other more serious health conditions, such as cancer, that cause blood in the stools. Thus the need for immediate medical investigation of any sign that blood is present in the stool.


Pencil Thin Stools

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If you only experience thin stool every now and then, it is probably not cause for significant concern as thin stools are not necessarily signs of a serious health problem. However, you should still bring the symptom to your doctor's attention. If you are experiencing persistent pencil thin stools you need to tell your doctor immediately.

The causes of pencil thin stools include:

  • Colon cancer
  • Diarrhea associated with IBS or IBD
  • Enlarged prostate
  • Polyps in the colon 
  • Scar tissue in the colon

In-Depth Information on Stool Changes

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The following articles provide in-depth information on changes in the shape of stools:

The following articles cover changes in the color of stool:

The following articles cover changes in the appearance of stool:

The following articles provide in-depth coverage of other digestive health conditions that affect the appearance of stools:

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Constipation.

  2. NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diarrhea.

  3. NIH MedlinePlus. Stools - floating. Updated April 10, 2018.

  4. Stanford Health Care. Symptoms of short bowel syndrome.

Additional Reading