The color of the stool that is passed is generally used as an identifier of an underlying medical condition. However, the color of the stools can also change due to certain other factors like intake of vitamin supplements and eating a certain variety of food. The medical conditions which normally change the color of the stools are liver dysfunction or gallbladder disease.
Pale stool at times is an indicator of some potentially serious underlying medical condition, especially if it is white or clay in color. This is more so in children and if they start having pale stools then they should be checked by a physician on an emergent basis. This article highlights some of the potential causes of pale stools and the different ways to treat them.
What Causes Pale Stools and How Is It Treated?
The usual brown color that is observed during a normal bowel movement is due to the bile that is secreted in the liver. When the color of the stool changes to pale then it clearly indicates that there is not enough bile is present in the stool. This then becomes a cause of concern as it indicates a problem with either the liver or the gallbladder.
Thus if an individual consistently has pale stools then a consultation with a physician is warranted to rule in or out any serious underlying medical illness affecting the pancreas, liver, or the gallbladder. Some of the potential causes for pale stools include:
Certain Foods: Certain food products where artificial coloring is used can cause pale stools. Additionally, certain vitamin supplements are also believed to cause pale stools. Vitamins rich in irons tend to cause the stool to become dark brown or black.
Giardiasis: This is a common infection caused by a parasite found in contaminated water. It is a highly contagious disease and anyone who comes in contact with an infected individual can get this disease. One of the presenting features of Giardiasis is pale colored stool. This disease is extremely common in the third world countries where people have limited access to clean drinking water.
Along with pale stools, the affected individual will also complain of persistent stomach pain, headaches, fever, and bouts of vomiting. The disease however can be easily managed by prescribing the medication that kills the parasite. After treatment, it takes a few days for the individual to get back to normal and have regular normal colored bowel movements.
Medications: Certain classes of medications if taken for prolonged period of time or in dose which are in excess of what that has been prescribed can damage the liver. When this happens, there is less bile secreted and the color of the stool becomes pale. The best example of this is over the counter pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
These drugs if taken chronically can harm the liver. Thus if an individual observed pale stools after starting a new medication should consult with the physician and get the medication changed or the dose altered.
Gallbladder Disease: Gallbladder is the organ which stores the bile. This organ is situated next to the liver. During the process of digestion, the gallbladder releases bile to the intestines which then mix with stool and gives its normal color. Any dysfunction in the gallbladder can interfere with the flow of bile to the intestines resulting in Pale Stools.
The most common among all disorders of the gallbladder is gallstones. This condition blocks the bile duct through which the bile flows thus obstructing the path of the bile. Aside from Pale Stools, gallstones also cause severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
If left untreated, gallbladder diseases can affect the pancreas and the liver. Coming to treatments, management of gallbladder problems depends on the underlying cause. For instances of gallstones, they are either removed surgically or through laser treatments. There are also medications available that dissolve the stones.
Even if the gallbladder has to be removed because of certain conditions, it does not affect the quality of life of the individual. However, certain dietary modifications mat need to be adhered to post removal of the gallbladder.
Liver Dysfunction: This is yet another reason for an individual having pale stools. There are a variety of liver conditions that affects its function of which the most common are hepatitis, cirrhosis due to alcohol abuse, fatty liver disease which is seen in people who are overweight and eat food high on fats, and autoimmune disorders. Liver dysfunction also can occur as a result of liver cancer or cysts in the liver.
Treatment for liver dysfunction depends on the disease condition and its causes. The extent and severity of the disease is also taken into account when planning a treatment strategy for liver dysfunction. For mild conditions medications and lifestyle modifications are enough but for severe disorders a liver transplant may be required.
If liver dysfunction is caused due to problems with other organs like the pancreas and the gallbladder then the primary source of liver dysfunction needs to be treated as well. An individual with liver dysfunction will have nausea and vomiting, dark colored urine, and swelling of the lower extremities apart from pale stools.
Pancreatic Disorders: When the pancreas start to malfunction then also the affected individual tends to have pale stools. This is because pancreas secretes pancreatic enzymes into the digestive system to regulate movement of food within the stomach. If the pancreas is not able to secrete these enzymes then the food moves too quickly through the gut causing the stool to be pale.
Pancreatitis is the most common condition that results in pale stools. This condition usually occurs as a result of infections, gallstones, alcohol abuse, diet high on fats, and cancer of the pancreas. Treatment for this condition depends on the underlying cause. In some cases, treatment may require inpatient stay for administration of antibiotics to treat infection In some cases, surgery may have to be done to treat pancreatitis.
When to Consult a Physician
An individual should consult a physician if he or she has recurrent episodes of pale stools. If the liver, pancreas, or the gallbladder is affected then treatment should be started immediately as these conditions rapidly progress and may become life threatening in no time. If left untreated, these conditions can cause permanent damage to other organs as well making the situation more complicated.
Thus it is important to go to the physician right away in cases of a pale stool, especially if it is associated with other symptoms like pain, dark colored urine, jaundice, or high grade fever with vomiting.
In conclusion, the color of the stool stores crucial information about the overall health and well-being of an individual. Just a one off episode of pale stool is not a cause of worry as it may be due to food texture or vitamin intake.
However, if the episodes persist then a consultation with a physician is warranted as it may indicate a potentially serious problem with the liver or the pancreas. All the conditions mentioned above that causes pale stools are treatable and earlier the treatment starts the better is the overall prognosis of the affected individual.
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