March 31, 2023

The Scoop on Poop: What Your Doo Is Telling You

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Want to look out for number one? Here’s what to look for with number two.

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…That’s right — we’re talking about pooping. It’s a bodily function that’s as natural as eating and breathing. But for a lot of us, it’s not exactly something that comes up in polite conversation. The topic (or act) might make you squeamish, but poop can be an important indicator of overall health, so you might want to get more comfortable paying close attention to it, especially when in conversation with your healthcare team. We asked Paul Limburg, M.D., MPH, AGAF, chief medical officer for screening at Exact Sciences, to get down to business and explain what’s normal — and what’s not normal — when it comes to doing your business.

How often should you poop?

We love that you’re goal-oriented but there really isn’t a hard and fast number the general poopulation should be aiming at (sorry, we had to). When it comes to how frequently you should poop, the range of what’s considered healthy is surprisingly large and depends on many factors. “The normal range is anywhere from three times a day to three times a week,” says Dr. Limburg. “Every person’s bowel habits are slightly different. They can be impacted by everything from diet to hydration to exercise. Your bowel movement frequency also may be impacted by genetics, but that’s not as clearly defined.” If you’re concerned that you don’t fall within this range, ask your healthcare provider what a good number is based on your personal lifestyle and medical history.

What does healthy poop look like?

A bowel movement should be easy to pass without pushing and should be “fully formed,” meaning it’s solid and either in one continuous piece or broken into a few medium-sized pieces. What’s important to note, says Dr. Limburg, are any changes in your normal bowel consistency: “If it used to be easy to pass stool and suddenly it’s more difficult, that’s something you should note to your healthcare provider,” he says. “If you have pebble-like stool and that’s new for you, that could be a symptom of an underlying condition, like an issue with the nerves, muscles, or lining of the bowel wall.”

Another important indicator is what Dr. Limburg describes as the caliber of stool: “If your stool goes from being the thickness of a toilet paper roll to the thickness of a pencil, that could be an indication that there’s been a narrowing somewhere in the intestines. Since colorectal cancer starts in the intestinal lining and grows inward, it narrows the opening for stool to pass, which can make it appear thinner.”

What color should poop be?

The answer to this one is also pretty broad, and varies from person to person. “Brown, green, dark, and light stool are all within the normal range,” Dr. Limburg explains. “Clearly abnormal stool color would be inky black, which could be a sign of bleeding in the intestinal tract. A very light color, like eggshell or light clay can also be problematic and could signal an issue with metabolism. Any visible blood in the stool should be a sign for you to talk to your healthcare provider.”

While blood in stool can be alarming and warrants attention, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dealing with a serious diagnosis like colon cancer, explains Dr. Limburg: “Your doctor should be able to easily diagnose more common causes for blood in the stool, like hemorrhoids or fissures, which are little cuts at the opening of the anus or rectum. But polyps and cancers can also cause blood in the stool, so this is a symptom you should not ignore.”

If you’re having diarrhea, how long should you wait before calling your healthcare provider?

Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced diarrhea and if you’re really lucky, you’ve had a few long bouts of it. It’s certainly unpleasant and uncomfortable, but if you have a random midday loose movement and then you’re back to normal, it’s nothing to get nervous about — we’ve all had a meal that just didn’t agree with us or an anxiety-inducing experience that sent us running to the toilet. But when it persists, you should take action.  “If you have loose or very watery stool for several days, if it’s associated with blood, fevers, or if there’s cramping, call your healthcare provider,” says Dr. Limburg. “If nothing else, they should be able to give you something for symptom relief even if there’s not an underlying condition that needs specific treatment.”

When should constipation be a cause for concern?

Once again, this all has to do with deviation from your normal poop patterns. “Think about the frequency with which you normally have a bowel movement as a barometer,” explains Dr. Limburg. “Take note if you usually go once a day but are now going once a week. Particularly in older individuals, new onset constipation could be due to a variety of factors, ranging from a nutritional deficiency to changes in the bowel wall, and could indicate the need for a colonoscopy or other diagnostic testing.”

What does it mean if poop floats or sinks?

Generally, your poop should sink. If your poop occasionally floats, it’s probably nothing to worry about. But if it becomes a regular pattern, it could indicate a digestive disorder, Dr. Limburg says: “This could signal that food isn’t being properly broken down or absorbed in the body. If your stool has a mucus-like quality or it looks like there’s oil floating in the water with it, there may be an issue with the upper intestines or pancreas. Sometimes this will be accompanied by an extremely foul smell. These are things you should definitely mention to your healthcare provider.”

What to do about fecal incontinence

Dr. Limburg strongly stresses that as we age, experiencing incontinence is nothing to be ashamed of or ignore, since there are many effective ways to control this symptom. “Loss of bowel control or fecal incontinence is commonly associated with aging, particularly among women who have had children through vaginal delivery.” While it’s a condition that many people experience, you don’t have to suffer in silence. “This isn’t something you have to just accept and live with. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist who can suggest tests and even exercises that may help you. Incontinence can lead to social isolation because there’s a fear of having to urgently find a bathroom if you leave the house. But you shouldn’t have to let it interfere with your daily life. There are solutions that can help, and you are absolutely not alone in this. Just ask — we’ve heard it all.”

Considering the rising incidence of colorectal cancer in younger adults, if you’re experiencing any symptoms that are out of your normal range, don’t hesitate to tell your healthcare provider. “And make absolutely sure they listen and take you seriously,” stresses Dr. Limburg. “No matter your age, if you’re experiencing sudden and unintentional weight loss, consistent abdominal pain with bowel movements, pencil-thin stool, or blood in your stool, don’t let your healthcare provider brush it off without doing an appropriate evaluation. Ask them to consider additional tests or referral to a GI specialist. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

Information provided is not clinical, diagnostic, or treatment advice. You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.