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What causes pale stools? 26 possible conditions

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:


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 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.


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 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.


Yellow Skin (Jaundice)

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

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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 »


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.

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

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Hepatitis refers to an inflammatory condition of the liver. It's commonly caused by a viral infection, but there are other possible causes of hepatitis.

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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.

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Cirrhosis is the severe scarring and poor function of the liver caused by long-term exposure to toxins such as alcohol or viral infections.

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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.

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Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a recessive genetic disorder that affects cells that produce mucous, sweat, and digestive juices. It may cause severe problems in the lungs, pancreas, liver, and intestine

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Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder that results in excessive destruction of red blood cells (anemia). Symptoms depend on its severity, and can range from minor anemia to enlargement of organs or fetal death.

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G6PD Deficiency

Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase(G6PD) deficiency is a genetic abnormality that leads to an inadequate amount of the necessary enzyme. Without enough G6PD, red blood cells can be destroyed, leading to anemia.

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Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic, or long-term, pancreatitis is an inflammation of your pancreas that impairs your body's ability to digest food and regulate blood sugar.

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Acute Cholecystitis - A Fancy Term for an Inflamed Gallbladder

Acute cholecystitis is also known as inflammation of the gallbladder. The gallbladder is an organ that sits below the liver and helps your body digest fats.

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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.

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Drug-Induced Immune Hemolytic Anemia

Drug-induced immune hemolytic anemia (DIIHA) is a rare blood disorder in which your immune system begins attacking your red blood cells. Symptoms include dark urine, fast heartbeat, and jaundice.

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ABO Incompatability Reaction

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

An ABO incompatibility reaction can occur if you receive the wrong type of blood during a blood transfusion. It's rare but serious and potentially fatal.

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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.

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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.

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Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease that causes red blood cells to have an abnormal shape, causing blood flow problems. This can lead to tissue damage and pain, as well as enlarged spleen, anemia, and other symptoms.

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Yellow fever

Yellow fever is a serious, potentially deadly flu-like disease spread by mosquitoes. It's found mostly in Africa and South America. Symptoms of stage 3 yellow fever include abdominal pain, vomiting, and jaundice.

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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.