Dear doctor, I’m passing dark stools, what does it mean?

For many of us when we go to the toilet, the last thing on our mind is to check the colour of the stool we have passed. Faeces is a waste product and we want to ensure that once we passed it, its gone and forgotten. However, the health of our stool can be a pointer to other things going on in the body particularly in the digestive tract.

Usually, the normal stool colour for most people is brown or yellowish. However, this can vary depending on a person’s diet. If a person has persistent black or very dark brown stool, this can be a pointer to a potentially serious problem.

The stool normally gets its yellow colour from the breakdown of bile in the upper small intestine. However, when the stool takes a black or dark brown colour, this is most likely caused by bleeding in the stomach, small intestine or early parts of the large intestine.

You may ask, but blood is red, why does dark stool signify bleeding? The answer to this question goes thus; when there is bleeding in the stomach and the upper parts of the intestines, the blood mixes with the food we eat and also passes through the process of digestion. So, basically, digested blood is black in colour.

So then what can cause bleeding into the stomach?

There are a number of conditions which can cause bleeding into the stomach or intestines and all of these conditions need to be investigated by a doctor and treated promptly.

One common cause of bleeding is stomach or duodenal ulcers. In addition to having dark stools, people with either of these conditions can also have upper tummy pains. Although these are serious conditions, when diagnosed they can be successfully treated with medication or surgery if advanced.

Another condition that can cause bleeding into the digestive system is called varices. This is a condition where the blood vessels in the upper part of the digestive tract become large and prominent, making them burst and bleed easily. Varices can be caused by chronic liver disease commonly caused by excessive alcohol or other medical conditions.

The most feared cause of bleeding into the stomach and intestines is cancer, which can occur in any part of the intestine. With cancer, people also have other symptoms such as abdominal pain, weight loss, loss of appetite and fatigue.

What should I do if I experience dark stools?

Dark stools can be the result of potentially serious medical conditions, so it is important to contact a doctor as soon as you notice such a symptom.

You will require certain tests which may include blood tests, stool test, a scan of your tummy, and endoscopy (passing a camera tube down your food pipe into the stomach).

Is there anything I can do to prevent dark stools?

As dark stools are caused by different medical conditions, there is no specific way to prevent them. However, living a healthy lifestyle most of the time can help to prevent the conditions that cause bleeding into the stomach.

The following are some of the lifestyle measures that can help.

  • Ensure adequate balanced diet on a regular basis
  • Avoid excessive use of alcohol
  • Avoid smoking
  • Maintain your weight within the recommended limits

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