Seeing blood in your stool can be alarming. For many, cancer is the first thing that comes to mind when experiencing blood in their stool for the first time. While colorectal cancer can cause similar symptoms, hemorrhoids are far more common.

As uncomfortable as hemorrhoids can be, they’re easily treatable and don’t cause cancer.

Let’s look at the signs and symptoms of hemorrhoids and colorectal cancer and how to know when it’s time to see a doctor.

Hemorrhoids and cancer are very different conditions that can cause some of the same symptoms.

Rectal bleeding

Rectal bleeding can present a few different ways. You may notice blood on the toilet paper, in the toilet, or mixed with your stool after a bowel movement.

Hemorrhoids are the most common cause of rectal bleeding, but cancer, including colorectal cancer and anal cancer, can also cause rectal bleeding.

The color of the blood can indicate where the blood is coming from. Bright red blood is more likely to come from the lower digestive tract, such as the rectum or colon.

Dark red blood may be a sign of bleeding in the small intestine. Black, tarry stools most often result from bleeding in the stomach or upper part of the small intestine.

Rectal and anal itching

Both conditions can cause rectal or anal itching. Mucus and stool from inside the rectum can irritate the sensitive skin inside the rectum and around the anus, causing itching. The itchiness usually intensifies after a bowel movement and may be worse at night.

A lump at the anal opening

A lump at your anal opening can be caused by hemorrhoids, as well as colorectal and anal cancer.

Hemorrhoids are a far more likely cause of a lump in the anus. External hemorrhoids and prolapsed hemorrhoids can cause a lump under the skin just outside the anus.

If blood pools in an external hemorrhoid, it causes what’s known as a thrombosed hemorrhoid. This can cause a hard and painful lump.

Though there are similarities in symptoms, hemorrhoids and colorectal cancer also causes some very different symptoms.

Change in bowel habits

A change in your bowel habits is a common warning sign of colorectal cancer. Bowel habits vary from person to person. A change in bowel habits refers to any change in what is normal for you, from the frequency to the consistency of your bowel movements.

This can include:

Persistent abdominal discomfort

Colorectal cancer can cause persistent abdominal pain or discomfort, including gas, bloating, and cramps. Hemorrhoids don’t cause abdominal symptoms.

Unexplained weight loss

Unexplained weight loss is a common symptom of colorectal cancer that is not caused by hemorrhoids. About 38 to 51 percent of people with colorectal cancer experience unexplained weight loss, depending on the location and stage of the cancer.

Feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty

The sensation of having to pass stool even though your bowels are empty is called tenesmus. You may feel the need to strain or experience pain or cramping. This is a symptom of colorectal cancer, though inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a more common cause.

Weakness or fatigue

Fatigue is a common symptom of different types of cancer. Bleeding in the intestinal tract can cause anemia, which can also cause fatigue and weakness.

Rectal pain

Colorectal cancer doesn’t usually cause rectal pain and is often painless. Rectal pain is more likely to be caused by internal hemorrhoids.

If you’re diagnosed with hemorrhoids, home treatment is often all that’s needed to relieve symptoms. You can treat hemorrhoids with a combination of home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) products. A thrombosed hemorrhoid may require medical treatment.

At-home treatment

The following are things you can do at home to relieve pain, swelling, and itching:

  • use OTC hemorrhoid treatments, such as creams, ointments, suppositories, and pads
  • soak in a sitz bath for 10 to 15 minutes, two or three times a day
  • take OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • keep the area clean
  • eat high fiber foods to help make bowel movements easier to pass
  • apply a cold compress on the anus to relieve swelling

Medical treatment

Hemorrhoid surgery may be recommended depending on the type of hemorrhoids and your symptoms. Surgical procedures for hemorrhoids are minimally invasive and most are performed in the doctor’s office without anesthesia.

Surgery can be used to drain a thrombosed hemorrhoid, remove hemorrhoids that cause persistent bleeding and pain, or cut off circulation to a hemorrhoid so that it falls off.

It’s important to see a doctor if you experience rectal bleeding. Though hemorrhoids are the most common cause of rectal bleeding, they can also be a sign of cancer.

A doctor can perform a physical examination, which will likely include a digital rectal exam, to confirm hemorrhoids and rule out more serious conditions.

Make an appointment to see a doctor if you have bleeding during bowel movements or experience pain or itching that lasts more than a few days and isn’t relieved by home remedies.

See a doctor right away if you experience rectal bleeding for the first time, especially if you’re over 40 or the bleeding is accompanied by a change in bowel habits.

Get emergency care if you experience:

It’s natural for you to worry about cancer if you notice blood in the stool or feel a lump. Remember that hemorrhoids are far more common than colorectal cancer and the most likely cause of blood in your stool.

A doctor can usually diagnose hemorrhoids with a quick physical exam and other tests, if needed, to rule out colorectal and other types of cancer. See a doctor if you notice blood in your stool or if you have hemorrhoids and experience new or worsening symptoms.