Bloody stool is a symptom that can be caused by a number of gastrointestinal problems. Referred to in medical terms as hematochezia, bloody stool can be either visible or not. When there are visible signs, patients are better able to describe their symptoms to their doctor. Sometimes the blood is not visible, but is present in the stool regardless. This is confirmed by fecal occult blood testing. Whether visible or not, bloody stool is caused by bleeding somewhere along the gastrointestinal tract.
One of the first things to provide the first clue to doctors as to the cause of bloody stool is the color of the blood. Typically, the brighter red the blood, the closer to the rectum the bleeding is occurring. The farther away from the rectum the source of blood is, the longer the blood remains in the gastrointestinal tract. As blood passes through the tract, it is broken down by bacteria, turning it darker or even black. Black “tarry” stool is medically referred to as melena.
Blood in the stool is frequently a symptom of a variety of harmless gastrointestinal conditions such as hemorrhoids or an anal fissure, but can also be a symptom of more serious conditions such as stomach or colon cancer. Bloody stool may also be caused by Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, stomach ulcers, and any condition that may be uncertain but previously diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
In order for a doctor to diagnose the cause of bloody stool, they may first confirm that blood is indeed present by doing a fecal test. The general location of gastrointestinal bleeding may be determined by the color of the blood in the stool, but visual inspection of the gastrointestinal tract is only way for a doctor to be certain of the location. Bright red or maroon blood in the stool will likely prompt a colonoscopy, while black or tarry stool may prompt esophageal inspection. The extent of testing for diagnosis will depend on the severity and frequency of bleeding as well as other symptoms.
Bloody stool does not always indicate a disease. In fact, this symptom can be very mild and infrequent as the result of constipation, hemorrhoids, or even after stomach viruses that caused severe or violent vomiting. If blood is present in small amounts and on toilet tissue only, simply be aware of any new or developing symptoms. Infrequent and mild bloody stool is not cause for alarm and while worth mentioning to your doctor, may not require immediate medical attention. However, if bloody stool is present with other symptoms, especially fever, abdominal cramping, rectal hemorrhaging, or persists for several days, seek medical attention.