What causes pale stools? 24 possible conditions

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What Are Pale or Clay-Colored Stools?

Normal stools can vary in shades of brown, mostly due to diet. Pale or clay-colored stools are not normal. If your stools are pale or clay-colored, you may have a problem with the drainage of your biliary system, which is comprised of your gallbladder, liver, and pancreas.

Bile salts are released into your stools by your liver, giving the stools a brown color. If your liver is not producing enough bile, or if the flow of the bile is blocked and not draining from your liver, your stools will be pale or clay-colored.

Having pale or clay-colored stools once in a while may not be a cause for concern. If it occurs frequently, you may have a serious illness. You should see your doctor whenever you have pale or clay-colored stools in order to rule out illness and disease.

Medical Conditions That Can Cause Pale or Clay-Colored Stools

There are many possible causes of pale or clay-colored stools. Some of the common causes include:

Medications

Certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen and naproxen), birth control pills, some antibiotics, and anabolic steroids can cause drug-induced hepatitis. Drug-induced hepatitis is a swelling or inflammation of the liver caused by medications. Drug-induced hepatitis and the related discolored stools usually go away within a few weeks after the medications are discontinued.

Viral Hepatitis

Viral hepatitis is a swelling or inflammation of the liver caused by viruses such as the hepatitis A, B, or C viruses. Hepatitis C often leads to liver disease.

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is swelling or inflammation of the liver caused by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Alcoholic hepatitis can lead to liver disease or liver failure.

Biliary Cirrhosis

Biliary cirrhosis is an inflammation or irritation of the bile ducts in the liver. The inflammation or irritation blocks the flow of bile to the intestines. The exact cause of biliary cirrhosis is unknown. There is no cure for biliary cirrhosis, and the disease is life-threatening. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 25 percent of people with biliary cirrhosis experience liver failure after 10 years of having the disease. (NIH)

Gallstones

Gallstones are hardened deposits in the gallbladder that can block the flow of bile. Medications can sometimes dissolve gallstones. You may need surgery to remove your gallstones if they are large or if they fail to go away after you take medications.

Sclerosing Cholangitis

Sclerosing cholangitis is an inflammation or scarring of the bile ducts, which are the tubes that carry bile throughout the body. The exact cause of this disease is unknown, but genetic factors may be partially responsible. Your doctor may be able to repair the damage to your bile ducts using medications or surgery.

Structural Defects in the Biliary System

You may have been born with structural defects in your biliary system that prevent the flow of bile. Your doctor may be able to surgically repair the defects.

Biliary Stricture

Gallbladder removal surgery can result in the narrowing of the bile ducts. This condition is known as biliary stricture. Your doctor may be able to correct the problems using surgery or a stent. A stent is a small tube that a surgeon places inside the ducts to keep them open so that bile can flow freely.

Tumors

Benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous) tumors in the biliary system can interfere with bile flow or can inflame the liver. Your doctor may be able to remove the tumor surgically. You may need radiation or chemotherapy treatments if the tumor is cancerous.

Cysts

Cysts on the bile ducts can prevent the flow of bile. The cysts may go away without treatment, or your doctor may perform surgery to remove them.

Jaundice and Pale or Clay-Colored Stools

One of the most common complications of pale or clay-colored stools is jaundice. This is due to a buildup of bile in your body. Jaundice is a yellowing of your skin or around the whites of your eyes. See your doctor immediately if you have signs of jaundice because it may also be a symptom of liver disease.

How Will a Doctor Diagnose Pale or Clay-Colored Stools?

Your doctor will ask you questions to find out how often you have pale or clay-colored stools, other symptoms you may have, and to find out what medications you are taking. Your doctor may also perform tests to help diagnose the cause of your pale or clay-colored stools. Possible tests include:

  • blood tests
  • computed tomography (CT) scans: imaging scans that look inside your body
  • magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) (a special type of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, that captures detailed images of the biliary system)
  • abdominal ultrasound: a test that uses sound waves to develop a picture of your organs

Long-Term Outlook

Once the underlying cause of pale or clay-colored schools is treated, your stools should return to a normal brown color. However, not all causes are curable, such as liver disease and some cancerous tumors. If the cause is incurable, you will continue to have pale or clay-colored stools.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Alcoholic Liver Disease

Damage to the liver from excessive drinking can lead to ALD. Years of alcohol abuse cause the liver to become inflamed and swollen. This damage can also cause scarring known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the final stage o...

Read more »

2

Hepatitis

Hepatitis is swelling and inflammation of the liver. It's usually caused by a viral infection. There are several types of hepatitis, including: A, B, C, D, and E. Symptoms may not occur until liver damage occurs.

Read more »

3

Biliary (Bile Duct) Obstruction

A biliary obstruction blocks the bile ducts, which carry bile to the small intestine for digestion and waste removal. An obstruction can be caused by many factors, including gallstones, inflammation, cysts, or tumors.

Read more »

4

Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation in the pancreas, which causes pain and swelling in the upper left side of the abdomen, nausea, and burping.

Read more »

5

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas, an organ that secretes an enzyme that breaks down fats, carbs, and proteins. Pancreatic cancer can obstruct the outflow of bile from the liver and causes yellow skin.

Read more »

6

Gallstones

Gallstones are hard deposits in the gallbladder that can eventually block the exiting bile ducts. Abdominal pain, fever, itchy skin, and jaundice are possible symptoms.

Read more »

7

Yellow Skin (Jaundice)

Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes and can indicate a serious problem with liver, gallbladder, or pancreas function.

Read more »

8

Liver Cancer

Liver cancer causes destruction of liver cells and interferes with the ability of the liver to function normally. Cancer that originates in the liver can spread from the liver to other parts of the body.

Read more »

9

Infectious Mononucleosis

Infectious mononucleosis, or "mono," is a group of symptoms caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. One potential symptom is a pink rash that looks like the measles.

Read more »

10

Breast Milk Jaundice

Jaundice (yellow-tinged eyes and skin) is common in newborns. But, occasionally jaundice will persist or re-emerge up to the sixth week in healthy, breastfed infants. Other symptoms are poor weight gain and listlessness.

Read more »

11

Drug-Induced Immune Hemolytic Anemia

Drug induced immune hemolytic anemia (DIIHA) is an extremely rare blood disorder. According to research published in the journal Hematology, the condition is estimated to occur in one in every 1 million people.

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12

Hepatitis E

The hepatitis E virus is transmitted via the intestinal tract and is not caused by the hep-A virus. It is spread most often by contaminated drinking water.

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13

Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is severe scarring of the liver and poor liver function seen at the end of chronic liver disease. The scarring is most often caused by long-term exposure to toxins such as alcohol or viral infections. Th...

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14

Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease of the red blood cells (RBCs). Normally RBCs are shaped like a disk. This gives them the flexibility to travel through even the smallest blood vessels. However, in people wit...

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15

Thalassemia

Thalassemia is a blood disorder passed down through families (inherited) in which the body makes an abnormal form of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. The disorder results in excessiv...

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16

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a recessive genetic disorder that can lead to serious complications or even put your life at risk. It may cause severe problems in the lungs, pancreas, liver, and intestine. It is an inherite...

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17

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by exposure to toxins, immune diseases, or infection. Viruses cause most cases of hepatitis. Hepatitis A is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus...

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18

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is liver inflammation caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). HBV is one of five types of hepatitis virus. The others are hepatitis A, C, D, and E. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stat...

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19

Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis affects the organ known as the pancreas, which is located below your stomach. The pancreas produces enzymes, which help to digest your food, and hormones such as insulin, which regulates the leve...

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20

G6PD Deficiency

The body needs adequate amounts of red and white blood cells to keep tissues oxygenated, fight infection, and maintain health. Enzymes are proteins that help regulate biochemical reactions and metabolism in the body an...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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