What causes white stool?
Stool is normally brown due to the digestion of bile salts, which are made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. When the amount of bile salts is significantly reduced or they are absent, the stool can be pale or even whitish. Liver disease can interfere with the production of bile salts, and anything that blocks the bile ducts can prevent bile salts from reaching the intestines.
White stool can occur with certain medications and barium, which is sometimes used in X-ray studies of the digestive tract.
Bile salt-related causes of white stool
White stool may be caused by conditions that decrease the amount of bile salts that reach the intestines including:
- Biliary atresia (a condition present at birth involving abnormal bile duct development)
- Biliary cirrhosis (inflammation of bile ducts in the liver)
- Biliary stricture (narrowing of the common bile duct)
- Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver due to chronic liver damage)
- Cancer or tumors of the liver, the bile ducts, gallbladder, or pancreas
- Hepatitis (liver infection or inflammation)
- Sclerosing cholangitis (bile duct inflammation and scarring)
Other causes of white stool
White stool can also be caused by other conditions and certain substances including:
- Aluminum hydroxide (ingredient in antacids such as AlternaGEL, Alu-Tab, Amphojel, as well as some formulations of Maalox and Mylanta)
- Barium (white substance that can be swallowed or used in an enema to help outline the digestive tract on X-ray)
Serious or life-threatening causes of white stool
In some cases, white stool may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
- Acute cholecystitis
- Acute hepatitis (liver infection or inflammation)
- Liver failure
Questions for diagnosing the cause of white stool
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your white stool including:
- How long have you been having white stool?
- How would you describe your stool?
- Have you had white stool before?
- Do you have any other symptoms?
- What medications are you taking?
What are the potential complications of white stool?
Because white stool can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Adverse effects of treatment
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to long-term diarrhea
- Failure to thrive in infants and children
- Growth problems in children
- Liver failure
- Poor nutrition due to nausea, diarrhea, or a decreased desire to eat
- Spread of cancer
- Stools - pale or clay-colored. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003129.htm.
- Diarrhea. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diarrhea/.
- Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
What is white stool?
Although the color of stool can be affected by different foods and medications, it is typically brownish due to digestion of bile salts, digestive agents made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.
A reduction or absence of bile salts can cause the stool to become a pale clay-like color. Bile salt production can be reduced due to severe liver disease such as hepatitis or cir... Read more about white stoolintroduction
What other symptoms might occur with white stool?
White stool may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that affect the stool may also involve other body systems.