Pale stools may suggest issues with your liver, gallbladder, or pancreas. If your bowel movements are a light clay color instead of brown, a healthcare professional can help you find the cause and recommend treatment.
Your liver releases bile salts into your stools, giving the stools a brown color. If your liver is not producing enough bile, or if the flow of the bile is blocked and can’t drain from your liver, your stools may become pale or clay-colored.
Having occasional pale stools may not be a cause for concern. But if you persistently see pale stools, you may have a serious illness.
You should see a doctor whenever you have consistent pale or clay-colored stools to rule out illness and disease.
There are many possible causes of pale stools. Some of the common causes include:
Certain medications can cause drug-induced hepatitis. This is a swelling or inflammation of the liver caused by medications.
Some examples include:
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- ibuprofen (Advil)
- naproxen (EC-Naprosyn)
- birth control pills
- some antibiotics
- anabolic steroids
- many herbal supplements
- statins (Lipitor)
For most people affected, drug-induced hepatitis and the related discolored stools usually go away within a few weeks after the medications are discontinued.
A doctor can diagnose the type of hepatitis virus you have and help you figure out the best treatment plan for you.
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.
To treat this form of hepatitis, it’s recommended to stop drinking alcohol. A doctor can help you if have alcohol dependence.
Alcoholic hepatitis can also cause malnutrition, so a special diet may be required to get the vitamins and other nutrients you need.
Medications such as prednisone (Rayos) and pentoxifylline (Pentopak) can also treat liver inflammation temporarily. However, abstinence from alcohol is essential for long-term survival.
In severe cases, a liver transplant may be needed.
The exact cause of biliary cirrhosis is unknown.
There’s no cure for biliary cirrhosis, and the disease can be fatal.
Treatment can help manage your symptoms and prevent complications. Commonly prescribed medications include cholestyramine (Questran), which treats itching. Ursodiol (Urso Forte) may also be prescribed, which aids in removing bile from the bloodstream.
A doctor may also suggest taking vitamins A, K, E, and D to replace the nutrients that are lost in fatty stools.
In severe cases, a doctor may suggest a liver treatment.
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’re large or medication isn’t effective.
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.
There’s no cure for sclerosing cholangitis other than a liver transplant. But certain medications and surgical procedures can help manage symptoms and reduce episodic flares.
Commonly prescribed medications include:
- cholestyramine (Questran)
- prednisone (RAYOS)
- ursodiol (Urso Forte)
- azathioprine (Azasan)
- cyclosporine (Sandimmune)
A doctor may also prescribe supplements for vitamins A, D, E, and K to replace what the body has lost. A doctor may also prescribe antibiotics.
Common surgeries used to treat sclerosing cholangitis include:
- endoscopic balloon, which involves inserting a balloon at the end of a long tube into the bile ducts to open any narrowing
- biliary drainage catheter, which involves placing a drain in the narrowing of the bile ducts
- removal of the colon and rectum in severe cases
- liver transplant
Structural defects in the biliary system
Some people are born with structural defects in their biliary system that prevent the flow of bile.
After a physical exam, a doctor may order several tests to determine if you have structural defects. These tests include blood tests, scans, and X-rays.
A doctor may be able to surgically repair the defects. The type of defect will determine the type of surgical procedure the doctor will use.
Gallbladder removal surgery can result in the narrowing of the bile ducts. This condition is known as biliary stricture.
A 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 inflame the liver.
A doctor may be able to remove the tumor surgically. If the tumor is cancerous, you may need radiation, a therapy that uses X-rays or gamma rays to destroy cancerous cells.
You may also need chemotherapy, which involves powerful drugs that destroy cancer cells.
Cysts on the bile ducts can prevent the flow of bile.
The cysts may go away without treatment, or a doctor may perform surgery to remove them. The surgery is typically performed laparoscopically, allowing the doctor to see inside your abdomen by creating small incisions. This minimally invasive surgery causes less discomfort than open surgery.
Brightly colored stools in children are usually caused by colorful foods like breakfast cereal. However, pale, white, or clay-colored stools in children can be caused by something more serious. Some of the causes are:
Seek medical care if your child has more than one abnormally colored stool, especially if they haven’t had any brightly colored foods or if the stools are pale, white, or clay-colored. Only a doctor can determine the exact cause and provide the proper treatment.
If the cause is food or medication, removing it from the child’s diet will clear up the condition. If the cause is liver disease or a blocked bile duct, this can be life threatening and may require surgery or medications.
An experienced healthcare professional will complete a thorough medical interview, including a history of your symptoms, the medications you take, your family history, and how much alcohol and other substances you take.
A physical exam will also be performed to help identify the cause of your pale stools.
Possible tests include:
- Blood tests: These can check for infections and jaundice.
- Computed tomography (CT) scans: These can determine if you have any swelling of your liver or bile ducts.
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): This is a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that can capture detailed images of the biliary system.
- Abdominal ultrasound: This can develop a picture of your organs.
Once the underlying cause of pale stools is treated, your stools should return to a normal brown color.
However, some causes, such as liver disease and some cancerous tumors, are incurable. If the cause is incurable, you’ll continue to have pale or clay-colored stools.
Some of the causes of pale stools are not preventable, but others are.
Some forms of hepatitis have vaccines for prevention. Alcoholic hepatitis can be prevented by not drinking alcohol in excess.
If the cause is unknown, work toward having healthy bowel movements by eating a balanced diet that is high in fiber.
Are pale stools normal?
The color of your stools can be an indicator of your overall health. Color can range from dark brown to green. Normally, stools are a shade of brown.
If you observe pale stools that occur more than once, it can be a sign of bile duct blockage or liver problems.
When should I worry about pale stools?
Occasional pale stools may not be something to worry about.
However, if you’re experiencing frequent pale or light-colored stools, you may want to seek medical attention. This could be a sign of an underlying health condition.
Can fatty liver disease cause pale stools?
Pale stools may be a sign of liver disease or a blocked bile duct, especially in children.
Seek a doctor if you notice pale stools, as this may be a sign of liver disease.