Kids love potty talk — especially poop jokes. There are even silly poop songs that will have your kids giggling. Just ask Siri, “Play [Insert Your Name] poops,” and watch in horror or delight. You’re welcome.
But, when you’re all grown up, #2 becomes a taboo topic. Why do we shut the lid on bowel movements?
Pooping is something we all do, whether we find it a sensitive topic or not. But most importantly, it can also give us “solid” clues about our overall health.
“Your stools are an important indicator of your overall digestion and health,” said Cameron Thompson, MD, a gastroenterologist with Banner - University Medicine in Tucson, AZ. “It can reveal signs of an infection, digestive system problems and even early signs of an inflammatory bowel disease or cancer.”
While it may not be polite to bring it up at the dinner table, here are five things to know about your poop and what to do when something doesn’t look (or smell) quite right.
Your poop comes in all shapes and sizes
Does your poop slither out smoothly like a snake or plop out like Tic-Tacs?
Based on this very vivid description, you can probably guess which one of these is the most ideal to have. Thankfully, there’s also an actual diagnostic chart (the Bristol Stool Chart) that classifies human poop into shape and consistency.
The Bristol Stool Form Scale identifies seven types of poop:
Type 1: Separate hard lumps, like pebbles
Type 2: Lumpy and sausage-like
Type 3: Sausage-shaped with cracks on the surface
Type 4: Thinner, more snake-like that is smooth and soft
Type 5: Soft blobs with clear-cut edges
Type 6: Mushy pieces with ragged edges
Type 7: Liquid with no solid pieces
A normal bowel pattern will typically fall around Types 3 or 4. “However, stool size can vary from person to person, depending on the dietary intake, like how much water you drink and how many high-fiber foods you eat,” Dr. Thompson said. “It can also vary day to day or even stool to stool.”
Generally speaking, the lower you are on the scale (Types 1 and 2), the greater the chances you may be constipated. The higher you go up on the scale, it could indicate diarrhea. Diarrhea is sometimes caused by temporary illness or certain medications, like antibiotics, and should pass in a few days.
If you’re consistently struggling with either end of the Bristol Stool Form Scale, make an appointment with your health care provider to discuss.
Save your spot for a virtual or in-person urgent care visit.
Brown or red? Stool color matters
There are a lot of things that go into making poop its color.
“Our stools are 75% water and 25% waste, which consists of indigestible food, inorganic substances and dead bacteria,” Dr. Thompson said. “The foods you eat and medications you take or any other things like food coloring you might have ingested all go into making up this color.”
While brown is the most typical color, there are other shades you may see in the toilet. Most color changes aren’t a cause for concern, however, here are some colors that could signal other problems:
- Black: If you eat black licorice and blueberries or take iron supplements or a bismuth medication like Pepto Bismol, your may have black poop. But black stool may also mean you have bleeding or tumors in your digestive tract. Any bleeding is an issue, so if it’s not due to what you ate, talk to your health care provider.
- Pale or white poop: Clay-colored or pale stools could be a sign of an infection or that your bile duct is blocked. They could also be a side effect of medications. Let your provider know.
- Red: If you haven’t eaten something red (like beets), then there’s a cause for alarm. A tiny bit of bleeding can be caused by hemorrhoids or anal fissures in the setting of constipation. However, larger amounts of bright red blood could be a sign of another more significant reason, such as gastrointestinal bleeding or colorectal cancer. If you can’t explain the red color, you have symptoms or the red stools persist, let your provider know.
- Green: Consuming green-colored foods or drinks like leafy vegetables or artificially colored items can be a cause. When stool passes quickly through the intestines, it may not have enough time to fully break down bile, which normally gives it a brown color, resulting in green poop. In certain instances, green poop might be a sign of an underlying condition, such as a gastrointestinal infection or problems with absorbing nutrients.
Offensive smells are important to note
Poop smell isn’t really pleasant and isn’t normally an indicator of health issues, but it’s important to take note if your poop is particularly pungent or foul-smelling. Certain smells may indicate issues in your GI (gastrointestinal tract). A condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) causes unusually foul-smelling bowel movements.
“Black tarry stool with a strong smell may indicate upper gastrointestinal tract bleeding,” Dr. Thompson said. “Foul smelling stool could also be related to GI tract infections, including viral, bacterial and parasitic infections or malabsorption due to an intolerance or medical condition, like celiac disease.”
Frequency can vary
You may wonder how often you should go in a day. Like with your Bristol score, how often you go can vary too.
“It’s normal to have bowel movements between three times a day to three times a week,” Dr. Thompson said. “Bowel movement frequency varies from person to person and can be influenced by other factors, such as medical conditions, medications, mobility, hydration and exercise. If you’re producing regular soft, well-formed stools that aren’t hard to push out, you shouldn’t have concerns.”
It’s OK if you’re not like clockwork every morning but talk to your provider if you notice changes in your regular schedule.
Watch for floaters
Most poop sinks, but it’s not unusual to have a floater from time to time. “Generally, sinking or floating stools shouldn’t be a cause to worry,” Dr. Thompson said.
Floaters can be caused by excess gas or from eating something with a high-fat content. If you’re consistently experiencing floating stools and notice other changes like significant weight loss, talk to your health care provider to see what’s going on.
Takeaway: Keep your bowels happy
It’s important to not ignore your poop. Keeping your bowel movements frequent and healthy is an important part of your overall health.
To encourage regular and healthy poop, Dr. Thompson suggested the following tips:
- Eat a balanced, high-fiber diet
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise regularly
- Manage your weight
- Limit alcohol
- Quit smoking
- Get a colonoscopy
- Monitor your poop habits
“Current colorectal screening guidelines recommend that you get screened starting at age 45, or sooner if you have certain risk factors, such as a family history of colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or genetic colon cancer syndrome,” Dr. Thompson said. “Talk to your provider if you notice changes in your bowel habits that are persistent, particularly if associated with the below signs or symptoms.”
Signs to watch out for include:
- Recurring or persistent constipation or diarrhea
- Severe stomach pains and indigestion
- Unintentional weight loss
- Red, black or pale-colored stools that can’t be explained by your diet
- Rectal pain