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

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Having a white or pale stool just once, or rarely, is not usually a concern. But when your poop color is consistently too light, it is something that you should discuss with a healthcare provider.

Stools that are pale, white, or look like clay or putty may result from many things. Sometimes a lack of bile or a blockage in the bile ducts can result in light-colored stools. Bile is a thick fluid that the liver makes to break down fats and remove waste from your body. It turns your stools a brown color.

Acholic

The medical term, “acholic,” refers to light-colored stools that result from a lack of bile.

Other reasons for light-colored stools include hepatitis, gallstones, infections, blockages, or passing barium in the stool after a colon test like a barium enema.

Reasons Your Stool May Be Pale Colored

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

This article explains pale stools, their causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

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, there are some general guidelines for identifying typical, healthy stools.

Healthy Stools

Characteristics of healthy stools include:

  • Bowel movements are soft and easy to pass
  • Brown or golden in color
  • Textured like peanut butter
  • Shaped like sausage


However, there are times when what you see in the toilet bowl is probably outside what would be considered typical. 

Abnormal Stools

Unusual stools may be:

  • Bloody
  • Hard
  • Watery or mushy
  • Black or tarry
  • Red
  • Green
  • Pale or clay-like

Contact your healthcare provider if you notice unusual stools more than just occasionally or are concerned about the size, shape, or color of stools.

Causes

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) while food passes.

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
  • A tumor that could 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.

Concerning Symptoms

Clay-colored stool caused by a medical condition might also be accompanied by a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes (jaundice) or darkened urine.

The presence of jaundice and pale stools could indicate a buildup of chemicals in your body. Therefore, jaundice is a serious condition you should discuss with a healthcare provider.

Diagnosing the Underlying Condition

A healthcare provider must first identify the underlying cause to treat pale 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 a condition involves the liver
  • Abdominal ultrasound, look at things like the gallbladder
  • 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

Treatment 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. In addition, if the liver is involved, a healthcare provider may advise that you 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 odd-colored stool isn’t usually a concern. However, if pale stools stick around, it can indicate a problem with bile ducts or another underlying medical condition. So, it’s essential to seek medical advice, especially if any other symptoms occur along with it, like jaundice or pain.

Your healthcare provider may want to run some tests to see what might be causing pale-colored stools. Treatment depends on the cause.

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 that they can better help you. The earlier you have the conversation, the better treatment you can receive.

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

  2. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Stools - pale or clay-colored.

  3. 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

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.