Stools commonly sink in the toilet, but your diet and other factors can cause your stools to change in structure. This may result in floating stools.
Floating stools are usually nothing to be concerned about. They’re not always a symptom of an illness or disease. Your stools will most likely return to their typical structure without any treatment.
Certain foods can cause gas in your stools. Foods that commonly cause gas contain large amounts of sugar, lactose, starch, or fiber, such as:
- soft drinks
- sugar-free candies
Malabsorption can occur when your stools pass through your intestines too quickly, such as when you have diarrhea. It can also occur when your body doesn’t process and absorb nutrients correctly.
If you have severe malabsorption, your floating stools may also have a strong odor and appear greasy.
A common cause of malabsorption is gastrointestinal (GI) tract infections. GI tract infections can be caused by viral or bacterial infections. These infections usually go away without any treatment. More serious infections include those from E. coli, salmonella, or parasites. These will require treatment from a medical professional.
Floating stools commonly occur in people who have lactose intolerance when they drink or eat dairy products. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, which is a sugar found in dairy products.
Ingesting dairy products when you’re lactose intolerant can cause gas in your stools and diarrhea. This can lead to malabsorption.
Your pancreas makes enzymes that help emulsify and digest fat in your intestine for absorption. If your pancreas isn’t making enough enzymes, for example, like in exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), fat will remain in your intestines and stool will have higher fat content.
Another mechanism is a blockage of your pancreatic duct that empties the enzymes into your small intestine. This could be due to a pancreatic head mass that blocks your pancreatic duct and bile from your liver and gallbladder.
The American Cancer Society says that floating stools may be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. This type of cancer may stop bile and pancreatic enzymes from getting through your intestines to break down fats, which can make stools greasy and make them float. Floating stools can also be a symptom of pancreatitis.
Some medical conditions that can cause floating stools include:
Gluten is a protein found mainly in wheat products. Currently, there’s no cure for celiac disease. The symptoms go away when you avoid gluten.
Cystic fibrosis is an inherited chronic condition that causes an excess production of thick and sticky mucus in your lungs and digestive tract. The excess mucus in your pancreas prevents the proper absorption of nutrients because your pancreas makes enzymes that can help with fat digestion in your small intestine to facilitate absorption, which can cause floating stools.
There’s no cure for cystic fibrosis. Treatments, including medications, may reduce floating stools, as well as other symptoms of the disease.
Short bowel syndrome
Short bowel syndrome occurs when your intestines don’t absorb nutrients properly. This syndrome can be caused by an intestinal disease. It can also be caused when part of your small intestine is missing from either a genetic defect or surgical removal.
Rare genetic conditions
Extremely rare genetic conditions that can cause floating stools include:
- Bassen-Kornzweig syndrome, a condition that prevents your intestines from absorbing fat
- biliary atresia, when you have underdeveloped bile ducts which make your intestines less able to absorb fats
- disaccharidase deficiency, a deficiency or absence of certain enzymes, which are needed to break down some sugars and starches
Call your doctor if you have floating stools for more than 2 weeks.
Get immediate medical help if your floating stools are accompanied by:
- blood in your stools
- weight loss
These may be symptoms of severe illness or malabsorption.
In order to find out the cause, your doctor will ask questions about how long you’ve had floating stools, your diet, your medical history, and other symptoms.
If they suspect an underlying medical condition, your doctor may order blood or stool tests to diagnose the specific cause of your floating stools.
Treatment may not be needed. If your doctor does recommend treatment, it will depend on the cause of your floating stools. They may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections, antidiarrheal medications for diarrhea, or recommend dietary changes.
If you have floating stools but no other symptoms, you may want to try a home treatment. There’s a good chance that your floating stools are caused by your diet.
Try keeping a record of the foods you eat and your bowel movements. Take note of when you have floating stools.
When you notice them, check what foods you ate recently. This can help you identify which foods are causing your floating stools. Once you identify the foods, you can avoid them in the future.
There are many reasons for stools that float. This can happen due to diet or lifestyle changes. Floating stools can also occur when there are issues with malabsorption or the pancreas. A person may notice floating stools if they have a stomach infection, certain conditions like celiac disease or cystic fibrosis, or rare genetic conditions.
If you have blood in your stool, feel dizzy, or have a fever, you may want to contact your doctor if possible. Treatment depends on the cause but will typically include diet changes or medication.