Your bowel movements can offer important clues to your overall health.

Changes in your poop’s size, shape, color, and content provide your doctor information to identify everything from what you recently ate to diseases such as celiac disease and pancreatitis. In fact, doctors use a chart, called the Bristol Stool Chart, to categorize different types of stools and their meaning.

Occasionally, you may notice foam or froth in your stool. Most often this symptom is related to something you ate, but it can mean you have a health condition that requires treatment. Keep reading to learn more about what causes this symptom, and what it could mean for your health.

Your poop may appear foamy if there’s too much fat or mucus in your stool.

Mucus can look like foam or be found with foam in stool. Some mucus is normal. It helps you pass the feces and protects your intestines. But too much mucus also can be symptom of certain health conditions.

Fat malabsorption can lead to steatorrhea, which means there is too much fat in your stool. Instead of passing through your intestines normally, fats either aren’t absorbed or they’re not digested properly. Additional symptoms of fat malabsorption include:

  • oily stool
  • pale or clay-colored stool
  • stool that may be bulky and smell foul

Steatorrhea is a symptom of a number of digestive problems:

If your symptoms are caused by something you ate, they should clear up once you’ve stopped eating that food. If your symptoms occur frequently, they could be caused by a health condition. Following are four health conditions that could cause foamy stool:

1. Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a disorder of the immune system. When people with celiac disease eat food containing gluten, their immune system reacts and damages the lining of their small intestine. It also can cause fat malabsorption and lead to foamy stools. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.

Celiac disease runs in families. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, 2.5 million Americans have the condition. Learn more about who is at risk for celiac disease.

More than 300 symptoms are associated with celiac disease. Symptoms vary widely and are different for adults and children. The following are common symptoms.

delayed growth
joint pain
loss of appetite
mouth sores

Celiac disease is usually diagnosed with a blood test and often a stool sample. It’s treated by eliminating gluten from your diet. If untreated, celiac disease can lead to chronic health conditions.

2. Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder of the large intestine. This means the intestine has no abnormalities, yet it doesn’t function properly. There are four subtypes of IBS based on stool consistency. Learn more about the subtypes of IBS.

IBS is found in 10 to 15 percent of American adults, and it’s more common in women than men. Doctors aren’t sure what causes the disorder. Many believe that the nerves or muscles of the intestine are overactive, or spastic.

IBS symptoms include:

The first-line treatment for IBS is to adjust diet. Your doctor may recommend eliminating foods that cause gas, such as cabbage, carbonated beverages, and beans. Some people may benefit from a gluten-free diet.

3. Giardiasis

Giardia lamblia is a microscopic parasite that causes inflammation and an infection of the digestive system, called giardiasis. You can get this infection by drinking contaminated water, eating food washed or prepared with contaminated water, or swimming in contaminated water. The parasite can also spread from person to person, usually by exposure to infected feces.

Symptoms of giardiasis include:

Giardiasis usually goes away without treatment within about two weeks. If it lasts longer, your doctor may confirm you have the infection by testing a sample of your stool. They may prescribe antibiotics.

4. Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland that’s part of your digestive system. Its role is to release food-digesting enzymes and to regulate your body’s blood sugar levels. In people who have pancreatitis, the enzymes that aid digestion begin to digest the pancreas instead of sugars.

Pancreatitis can be an acute event that heals in days, or it can be a chronic condition. Acute and chronic pancreatitis often require a hospital stay, during which you’ll fast under medical supervision, or possibly have surgery. People with chronic pancreatitis may experience fat malabsorption and fatty stools.

People between the ages of 30 and 40 are at higher risk of developing acute and chronic pancreatitis, and both are more common in men. The cause of pancreatitis isn’t well known, but it can run in families. Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, abdominal surgery, gallstones, and cystic fibrosis are common risk factors for developing pancreatitis.

Symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • steatorrhea
  • pain in your upper abdomen
  • weight loss
  • diabetes

If you’re stool isn’t back to normal in a few days, you should let your doctor know. Many things can cause foamy bowel movements. The examinations and tests used to make a diagnosis will vary according to all of your symptoms and your health history.

Symptoms you should always report promptly include:

  • mucus or blood in your stool
  • diarrhea lasting more than two days or 24 hours for a child
  • a fever of 101.5˚F (38.6˚C) or greater or 100.4˚F (3˚C) for a child
  • acute or persistent pain

Most of the time, foamy stool will clear up on its own in a few days. If it persists or you experience warning symptoms like stool mucus or blood, see your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that requires treatment.