Bloody or tarry stools
Toggle: English / Spanish
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.
Stools - bloody; Hematochezia - stools; Melena; Stools - black or tarry
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.
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:
- Abnormal blood vessels
- A tear in the esophagus from violent vomiting (Mallory-Weiss tear)
- Bleeding ulcer in the stomach
- When blood supply is cut off to part of the intestines
- Inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis)
- Trauma or foreign body
- Widened, overgrown veins (called varices) in the esophagus and stomach
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:
- Abnormal blood vessels
- Anal fissures
- When blood supply is cut off to part of the intestines, called bowel ischemia
- Polyps or cancer in the colon or small intestine
- Diverticulosis (abnormal pouches in the colon)
- Hemorrhoids (common cause of bright red blood)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (such as or )
- Infection in the intestines
- Trauma or foreign body
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:
- Are you taking blood thinners, such as aspirin, warfarin or clopidogrel, or similar medicines? Are you taking an NSAID, such as ibuprofen or naproxen?
- Have you had any trauma to the abdomen or rectum?
- Have you swallowed a foreign object accidentally?
- Have you eaten black licorice, lead, Pepto-Bismol, or blueberries?
- Have you had more than one episode of blood in your stool? Is every stool this way?
- Have you lost any weight recently?
- Is there blood on the toilet paper only?
- What color is the stool?
- When did the problem develop?
- What other symptoms are present (, vomiting blood, , , , or fever?)
You may need to have one or more tests to look for the cause:
- Bleeding scan (nuclear medicine)
- Blood studies, including a complete blood count () and , , clotting studies
- Esophagogastroduodenoscopy or EGD
- Stool culture
- Tests for the presence of Helicobacter pylori infection
- Capsule endoscopy (a pill with a built in camera that takes a video of the small intestine)
- Double balloon enteroscopy (a scope that can reach the parts of the small intestine that are not able to be reached with EGD or colonoscopy)
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.
- Last reviewed on 1/29/2017
- 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.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2013 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.