Bowel habits can vary from person to person. This includes how often you have a bowel movement, your control over when you have a bowel movement, and the bowel movement’s consistency and color. Alterations in any aspect of these habits over the course of a day represent a change in bowel habits.
While some bowel movement changes can represent temporary infections, others may indicate greater cause for concern. Knowing when to seek medical help can prevent an emergency condition from worsening.
While some people have a bowel movement several times per day, others may pass stool only once per day. According to the Cleveland Clinic, going more than three days without having a bowel movement is too long. Normal stools should be easy to pass and are typically brown in color.
Abnormal changes in the color of your stool can include:
- black, tarry stools
- clay-colored stools
- deep red stools
- white-colored stools
Changes in the consistency of stool include:
- dry stools
- hard stools
- mucus or fluid that leaks out around the stool
- watery, loose stools (known as diarrhea)
You may also experience changes in the frequency of your stools; they may become more or less frequent. If you do not have a bowel movement for more than three days or experience diarrhea for longer than a day, you should contact your doctor. Also, if you lose the ability to control your bowels, this is an indication of a concerning change in bowel habits.
Changes in bowel habits can be caused by a range of conditions, from a temporary infection to an underlying medical disorder. Examples of chronic conditions that can cause changes in bowel habits include:
- celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- ulcerative colitis
Medications, including many antibiotics, can cause changes in bowel habits. Read the side effects on your medication’s package or contact your doctor or pharmacist if you have recently started taking a new medication and experience changes in your bowel habits. Taking excessive amounts of laxatives can also affect your bowel habits.
Cancers, nerve damage from stroke, and spinal cord injuries can all affect your ability to control your bowel movements.
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the following changes in bowel habits:
- blood in your stool
- mucus in your stool
- passing watery, diarrhea-like stools for more than 24 hours
- pus in your stool
- severe abdominal pain
Make an appointment to see your doctor if you experience the following:
- have not passed stool in three days
- inability to pass gas
- mild abdominal pain
- sudden urges to have a bowel movement with an inability to control the bowel movement
- unexplained weight loss
- very narrow stool
When you get medical attention, a doctor will take a medical history and ask you to describe your symptoms. You may be asked to provide a stool sample to test for the presence of blood if you are experiencing blood in your stool.
Additional tests that may be used to determine potential causes for changes in bowel habits include:
- blood tests to determine blood and vitamin levels
- colonoscopy, a test that views the inner lining of the colon to identify polyps, pouches known as diverticula, or areas of bleeding
- CT scan to view tumors or other bowel irregularities
- X-ray imaging to view trapped air in the bowel
Changes in bowel habits are treated based on the underlying cause your doctor identifies. If bleeding is a concern, a gastrointestinal specialist may repair the bleeding area or it may heal itself.
A doctor may recommend prevention methods if constipation is a concern. These can include:
- drinking more water
- exercising regularly
- going to the bathroom when you have an urge (do not wait to use the restroom)
- increasing your fiber intake
Other treatments will depend upon your specific diagnosis.