When adults have a pale stool with no other symptoms, it is usually safe to wait and see if the stool returns to normal. When children and babies have very pale or white poop, a doctor should see them as soon as possible.
In this article, learn about the causes of pale stool, as well as their accompanying symptoms and how to treat them.
Causes of pale stool
Consuming fatty foods may make a person’s stools pale in color.
Bile from the liver creates the typical brown hue of a healthy bowel movement. When the stool is very pale, it often means that not enough bile is reaching the stool.
Problems with the gallbladder, pancreas, or liver are reasons why stool may not contain enough bile. People who have consistently pale stools may want to talk to a doctor about conditions that affect these organs.
The most common reasons for a pale stool color include:
Some foods may lighten the color of stool, especially fatty foods, or those containing food coloring. Vitamins that include iron can turn the color of stool dark brown.
It is fine for bowel movements to be lighter than usual occasionally. If they are white or clay colored, however, it could mean a person has an underlying medical condition.
Giardiasis is an infection that may turn the stool light or bright yellow. Giardia lamblia, the most common intestinal parasite in the world, causes the infection. A person can contract this parasite by drinking contaminated water or being in close contact with someone who has the infection.
Giardiasis is more common in regions with inconsistent access to clean water.
The most common symptoms of giardiasis include stomach pain, headache, swollen stomach, vomiting, and fever. A doctor can write a prescription for a drug that kills the parasite. With treatment, most people feel better in a few days.
Certain drugs and medications can damage the liver, especially when a person takes more than the dosage their doctor or the manufacturers recommend.
Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies, for example, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can harm the liver. A person who notices a pale stool after taking a new medication or after taking OTC pain relievers for a long time or in excess of the correct dose may have medication-related liver damage.
It is best to stop taking the drug, if it is not a prescription medication, and see a doctor as soon as possible.
4. Gallbladder disease
The gallbladder holds bile and is located on the upper right side of the stomach, next to the liver. During digestion, the gallbladder releases bile into the intestines through the bile duct. Gallbladder diseases can change the color of stool.
Gallstones, one of the most common gallbladder diseases, can block the bile duct, causing intense pain, nausea, vomiting, and pale stool. Without treatment, gallstones can cause problems with other organs, such as the pancreas and liver.
Treatments for gallbladder problems depend on the cause. A doctor may have to remove gallstones, either surgically or with medication to dissolve them.
A person can live a normal life without their gallbladder, and so a doctor may remove the gallbladder in the case of recurrent gallstones. Doctors may advise changes to a person’s diet after surgery.
5. Liver problems
Problems with the liver or bile ducts can turn the stool pale. There are many types of liver disease, including:
- infectious diseases, such as hepatitis A, B, and C
- liver damage from alcohol consumption
- fatty liver disease, most common in those with obesity or who eat a high-fat diet
- autoimmune diseases, which happen when the body attacks the cells of the liver
- failure of other organs
- liver cancer
- liver cysts
- Wilson disease, a genetic condition where the body retains too much copper
Treatment for liver disease depends on the specific condition and how far it has progressed. For mild liver disease, a person may only need medication and to make lifestyle changes. Those with severe liver disease may need a liver transplant.
When problems with another organ, such as the gallbladder, cause problems with the liver, a doctor must treat that condition as well.
In addition to pale stool, other symptoms of liver disease include:
- nausea and vomiting
- very dark urine
- fatty stool
- swelling in the ankles or legs
Anyone under a doctor’s care for liver disease should report any changes to stool color.
6. Pancreas problems
Diseases of the pancreas can make it hard for this organ to secrete pancreatic juices into the digestive system. This can lead to the food moving too quickly through the gut, causing a pale and fatty-looking stool.
Some conditions can cause pancreatitis, which is swelling and inflammation of the pancreas. These include:
- excessive alcohol consumption
- a high-fat diet
- pancreatic cancer
Treatment for pancreatitis depends on the cause. Some people need hospitalization, fluids, or antibiotics. Surgery may treat some forms of pancreatitis. When another condition causes pancreatitis, such as gallstones, a doctor must also address that issue.
Pale stool in children
Breastfed babies will generally have light-colored stools.
Pale stools in children are not necessarily a medical emergency if they occur once and are pale but not white.
Breastfed babies have light yellowish-brown stools. This hue is especially prevalent among babies who have not yet transitioned to solids. Once they are eating solids, their stool usually becomes browner.
When the stool is white or very light brown, this can signal a more serious problem, such as cholestasis, a type of liver disease.
In newborns, cholestasis or any other problem with the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas may be a medical emergency, so a caregiver should call their pediatrician right away.
If the baby has other symptoms, turns yellow, or appears to be in pain, a caregiver must take them straight to the emergency room.
In older children who have no other symptoms, it is usually safe to wait for the next bowel movement.
Pale stool during pregnancy
White or clay-colored stools during pregnancy usually indicate a problem with the gallbladder, liver, biliary ducts, or pancreas. Some women develop a pregnancy-related liver disease called intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy.
Symptoms of cholestasis include:
- intense itchiness
- pain under the ribs on the upper right side of the stomach
- dark urine even when well hydrated
- pale stool
- exhaustion beyond that of a typical pregnancy
- jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes, fingernail beds, or skin
Doctors do not fully understand what causes cholestasis, but they think that pregnancy hormones might affect liver functioning. Treatment may include medication and frequent monitoring, including blood work and ultrasounds. In some cases, a woman may need to give birth early.
When to see a doctor
A person should speak to a doctor if they have recurring pale stools.
Diseases of the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas can quickly become life-threatening. However, these diseases are usually treatable.
The longer a problem with these important organs continues, the more likely it is to cause lasting harm or damage other organs. So it is important to err on the side of caution and quickly see a doctor for pale stool.
An adult who only has a pale stool and no other symptoms can wait until the next bowel movement before they call a doctor. If the pale stool persists, they might be wise to see a doctor within a day.
If there are other symptoms, such as pain, dark urine, turning yellow, vomiting, or a fever, it is best to seek urgent treatment.
Bowel movements reveal important information about a person’s health. One pale stool is usually nothing to worry about, but frequent pale stools can indicate diseases of the liver, pancreas, or gallbladder.
In some cases, treatment can help a person feel better within a day or two. Other underlying conditions require long-term management.