Glancing in the toilet to check on your poop can be a surprising experience from time to time. Though we all usually know what to expect, what would you think if you suddenly found black stool in the bowl? Is dark-colored poop cause for alarm or just evidence that you have been eating too much dark chocolate or too many beets?

Many things can cause black bowel movements, and while some causes are completely benign, others might mean your life is in danger. As is the case with so many things involving your digestive tract, knowing the difference between what is surprising and what is actually dangerous can be difficult.

Should I Worry if My Stool is Black?

The short answer to whether you should worry about black stool is, “Maybe.” There are several reasons your stool might change color including everything from temporary changes in your diet to life-threatening colon cancer or liver disease. Understanding all the factors that can change the color of your poop can help you know when what you see in the toilet is a cause for concern.

Though diet and certain medication can cause a change in stool color, black stool is most often caused by blood entering your digestive tract. Bleeding in your GI tract is generally not a good sign, but even amongst the potential causes of blood in the stool, there is a wide range of severity from inconvenient to life-threatening.

What is Black Stool Symptom?

For some people, black, tarry stools are caused by what they eat. In many cases, things you normally eat may not change the color of your stool until you consume more than normal. A few of the common culprits include:

  • beets
  • black licorice
  • blueberries
  • dark chocolate

Drugs and medication can also change the color of your stool. One of the common causes of black stool from the medicine cabinet is, ironically, a medication taken for gastric upset. Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate), which may be taken to calm an upset stomach, can sometimes turn your stool black. This can happen when people attempt to treat conditions like peptic ulcers or chronic indigestion for long periods of time by taking medicines containing bismuth for longer than is recommended.

Iron supplements can also result in a change in stool color. If you have anemia or have other conditions that result in the levels of red blood cells being lower than normal, it is possible that iron supplements or a diet high in iron-rich foods like beets, can result in a range of side effects such as constipation and black stools.

The prolonged use of over-the-counter NSAIDS can result in the wearing away of the lining of the stomach and duodenum (the uppermost portion of the small intestine), which can lead to blood entering your stool.

Esophageal Varices and Other Serious Causes of Black Poop

At the other end of the spectrum, what comes out of your rectum could be indicating something seriously wrong with your gastrointestinal tract. A short list of the possible serious causes of black poop include diseases such as:

  • colon cancer
  • liver disease
  • gastrointestinal bleeding
  • celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • peptic ulcers
  • esophageal varices

Not all of these conditions are immediately life-threatening, but some can be serious depending on other risk factors you may have. If you are suffering from a known medical condition such as liver disease, and have been experiencing other symptoms such as abdominal pain, a sudden change in stool color is a worrying sign and you should call your doctor or healthcare provider immediately.

One discolored poop is not likely a medical emergency, but a change in your stool color accompanied by unexplained weight loss, severe cramping, bloody stools, severe abdominal pain, or other sudden symptoms is a serious concern. If a change in your stool accompanies the sudden onset of these other symptoms, contact your doctor right away.

How is the Cause of Black Stool Diagnosed?

If your stool has changed color dramatically, and the change persists for several days even when you change your diet, it may be time to talk to your doctor.

Food or medications can result in dark-colored stool, but it is bleeding in your GI tract that is often the cause of prolonged changes in stool color. There can be a range of reasons blood is entering your digestive tract. While none of these reasons are good, deciding whether it is a cause for immediate concern can be difficult.

Since blood in the stool can come from nearly anywhere along your digestive tract, finding the source of your bleeding could be a long and challenging process. Blood could be coming from high up in your esophagus, originating from stomach ulcers, or even the lower parts of your large intestine. Since this is the case, getting a look at the problem might involve more than one procedure.

It is possible that some conditions can be identified by enzymes in blood tests, but a visual examination of your gastrointestinal tract is often necessary to confirm the source of the blood entering your poop. Endoscopy or colonoscopy, depending on the area of the digestive tract in question, is often necessary to properly diagnose the cause of blood in the stool.

Taking Care of Your Poop

Any sudden change related to your body, or what comes out of it, can be a cause for concern. Knowing when you need to reach out and seek medical attention is important. While you don’t need to go to your doctor for every change in stool color, you also don’t want to leave potentially serious conditions undiagnosed.

Keeping a constant, vigilant eye on your digestive health is important, especially as you age. Many of the gastric problems we suffer later in life often show up with warning signs long before they become serious, but these signs can be subtle and easy to miss. This is why having an established connection to a gastroenterologist who can keep a trained eye on your digestive tract can help identify warning signs when they arise.

Knowing the state of your gastrointestinal health, and what other risk factors you might have, is a crucial step to diagnosing symptoms quickly and accurately. With signs like bloating, abdominal pain, and changes in stool color being common to so many different conditions, it is important to have a healthcare provider who knows your medical history.

It is also important to make sure you work with a specialist who knows their subject matter well. Digestive health is a massive field, and at Cary Gastroenterology, we focus exclusively on your digestive system. Our deep knowledge, experience, and expertise allow us the best chance to provide rapid, accurate diagnoses and help you begin the treatments you need to begin addressing whatever you are facing, whether that is facing down bowel cancer or just laying off the blueberries for a few days.

There is no need to wait for symptoms to become apparent to care for your GI tract. Request an appointment today at Cary Gastroenterology if you are ready to take control of your gastrointestinal health.