Bloody or tarry stools

Definition

Bloody stools often are a sign of a problem in the digestive tract. Blood in the stool may come from anywhere along your digestive tract from your mouth to your anus.

Alternative Names

Stools - bloody; Hematochezia - stools; Melena; Stools - black or tarry

Considerations

Heavy or rapid bleeding in the upper GI tract can cause bright red stools.

Eating black licorice, lead, iron pills, bismuth medicines like Pepto-Bismol, or blueberries can also cause black stools. Beets and tomatoes can sometimes make stools appear reddish. In these cases, your doctor can test the stool with a chemical to rule out the presence of blood.

Bleeding in the esophagus or stomach (such as with peptic ulcer disease) can also cause you to vomit blood.

Causes

Bleeding that takes place in the esophagus, stomach, or the first part of the small intestine most often causes the stool to appear black or tarry. Your health care provider may use the term "melena."

Bleeding in the upper part of the GI tract will most often cause black stools due to:

Maroon-colored stools or bright red blood often mean that the blood is coming from the small or large bowel, rectum, or anus. The term "hematochezia" is used to describe this finding. It can be due to:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider right away if you notice blood or changes in the color of your stool. You should see your provider and have an exam even if you think that hemorrhoids are causing the blood in your stool.

In children, a small amount of blood in the stool is most often not serious. The most common cause is constipation. You should still tell your child's provider if you notice this problem.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your provider will take a medical history and perform a physical exam. The exam will focus on your abdomen and rectum.

You may be asked the following questions:

You may need to have one or more tests to look for the cause:

References

Chaptini L, Peikin S. Gastrointestinal bleeding. In: Parrillo JE, Dellinger RP, eds. Critical Care Medicine: Principles of Diagnosis and Management in the Adult. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 76.

Laine L, Jensen DM. Management of patients with ulcer bleeding. Am J Gastroenterol. 2012;107(3):345-360. PMID: 22310222 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22310222.

McQuaid KR. Approach to the patient with gastrointestinal disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 132.


Review Date: 1/29/2017
Reviewed By: Michael M. Phillips, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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