How to Know When Pale or Clay-Colored Stool May Be a Problem

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Having clay-colored stool just once, or now and then, isn't usually a concern. But sometimes, health conditions like liver disease, gallstones, or liver infections can cause your poop color to be consistently too light, warranting medical attention.

This article explains what's normal and abnormal, what causes clay-colored stools, other symptoms to watch for, and how the cause of pale stools is diagnosed and treated.

Reasons Your Stool May Be Pale Colored

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

Normal vs. Abnormal Stools

Healthy stools come in many sizes, shapes, and colors. When it comes to how often you poop or what your stool looks like, everyone is different. So, there is a wide range of “normal.”

However, general guidelines can help you tell typical, healthy stools from abnormal ones.

Normal Stools
  • Soft

  • Easy to pass

  • Brown or golden

  • Sometimes greenish

  • Peanut-butter texture

  • Sausage-shaped

Abnormal Stools
  • Hard and hard to pass

  • Mushy/watery with urgency

  • Clay-colored, white, or light gray

  • Red or black

  • Bloody or tarry

  • Lumpy


Causes of Clay-Colored Stools

The biliary system is the drainage system of the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas. Bile, a digestive fluid, is created in the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and finally released into the first section of the small intestine (the duodenum) when food passes.

Bile turns your stools brown. The acids in bile help break down fats and remove waste from your body. The medical term “acholic” refers to light, clay-colored stools that result from a lack of bile.

Some medical issues can affect the liver or biliary system and cause pale stools. These include:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis, a disease from alcohol overexposure
  • Biliary cirrhosis, a type of liver disease where the bile ducts are damaged
  • Congenital disability of the biliary system
  • Cysts in a bile duct
  • Gallstones, calcium deposits in the gallbladder that could block bile ducts
  • Hepatitis A, B, or C, infectious liver diseases that may cause a lack of bile
  • Infections that could affect the biliary system
  • Sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that can cause a lack of bile production or a blockage in the bile ducts
  • Side effects of some medications that can cause drug-induced liver disease, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), hormonal birth control, and antibiotics.
  • Strictures, a narrowing of the intestine that could block the flow of bile
  • Tumor(s) that block the flow of bile

Since pale stools can signify a serious problem with the liver or biliary system, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider if your symptoms last longer than a few days.

Yellow Skin and Eyes?

If you have problems with your liver, your clay-colored stool might be accompanied by yellow skin and eyes (jaundice) or dark urine. This indicate a buildup of chemicals in your body. This is a serious condition and you should see a healthcare provider right away.

Diagnosing the Cause of Clay-Colored Stools

A healthcare provider must first identify the underlying cause before treating you for clay-colored stools. In addition to a complete medical history, they may order some of the following tests:

  • Liver function tests (blood tests to help determine if you have a liver problem)
  • Abdominal ultrasound to look at the liver and gallbladder area
  • Blood work to test for infection
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a type of endoscopy to see inside the pancreas and bile ducts
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT scan)

Treatment of Clay-Colored Stools

Treatment for clay-colored stools depends on the underlying cause. For example, if medications or supplements are suspected causes, you may need to adjust or switch which drugs you take.

Likewise, you may need to change your diet if a healthcare provider believes malabsorption is a contributing factor. If the liver is involved, you may be advised to avoid drinking alcohol.

If your pale stools are caused by something structural, like blocked bile ducts, you may need surgery to remove the blockage or widen the passageway. Hepatitis may require antivirals, while a liver transplant is the only way to resolve cirrhosis.

Summary

An occasional clay-colored stool isn’t usually a concern. However, if pale stools persist, it can point to a problem with bile ducts or another underlying medical condition.

It’s essential to see a healthcare provider, especially if you have any other concerning symptoms, like jaundice or pain.

Your healthcare provider may want to run some tests to see what's causing clay-colored stools. Treatment depends on the cause and ranges from dietary changes to surgery.

A Word From Verywell

It’s understandably uncomfortable to talk to someone about your poop. But your healthcare provider wants to know the details so they can help you. The earlier you have the conversation, the sooner you can be feeling better.

7 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.
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  2. Blake MR, Raker JM, Whelan K. Validity and reliability of the Bristol Stool Form Scale in healthy adults and patients with diarrhoea-predominant irritable bowel syndromeAliment Pharmacol Ther. 2016;44(7):693-703. doi:org/10.1111/apt.13746

  3. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. Biliary system.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Biliary system anatomy and functions.

  5. National Library of Medicine. Acholic stools.

  6. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Stools - pale or clay-colored.

  7. Santos Silva E, Moreira Silva H, Azevedo Lijnzaat L, et al. Clinical practices among healthcare professionals concerning neonatal jaundice and pale stools. Eur J Pediatr. 2017;176(3):361-369. doi:10.1007/s00431-016-2847-y

Additional Reading

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.