Bloody Diarrhea

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Introduction

What is bloody diarrhea?

Bloody diarrhea is a potentially critical condition in which there is blood mixed in with loose, watery stools. The blood can arise from anywhere along your digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus. Bloody diarrhea is often a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding due to injury or disease. Diarrhea that contains bright red or maroon-colored blood may be referred to as hematochezia, while melena is used to describe black, tarry, and smelly diarrhea. Bloody diarrhea may also be referred to as dysentery, which is usually caused by a bacterial infection.

Bloody diarrhea can occur in all age groups and populations. Depending on the cause, it can last for a short time (acute) and disappear relatively quickly, such as when it is due to a gastrointestinal infection. Bloody diarrhea can also recur over a longer period of time (chronic), such as when it is due to inflammatory bowel disease.

Bloody diarrhea is a potentially life-threatening condition that should be evaluated in a medical setting. If you are also dizzy, weak, and vomiting blood, you should seek immediate medical care in an emergency setting.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with bloody diarrhea?

Depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition, bloody diarrhea may occur with other symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, bloody diarrhea may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness

  • Confusion and disorientation

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Dizziness

  • Fainting

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Rapid pulse

  • Rigid, board-like abdomen

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Vomiting blood or black material (resembling coffee grounds)

  • Weakness (loss of strength)

Causes

What causes bloody diarrhea?

Bloody diarrhea can indicate a relatively mild condition, such as a hemorrhoid or anal fissure, or it can be caused by a life-threatening condition, such as ruptured esophageal varices or bleeding peptic ulcer.

In children, bloody diarrhea is most commonly due to a bacterial infection and inflammation in the lower gastrointestinal system. This is often linked to eating food contaminated with bacteria and parasites.

Black, tarry diarrhea usually indicates that the blood is coming from the upper gastrointestinal tract (esophagus, stomach and duodenum), while bright red or maroon-colored diarrhea often originates from bleeding in the lower gastrointestinal tract (colon, rectum and anus). Bloody diarrhea that is associated with dizziness or vomiting blood should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting.

Gastrointestinal tract causes of bloody diarrhea

Causes of bloody diarrhea related to the gastrointestinal tract include:

  • Anal fissure

  • Bleeding peptic ulcer

  • Blood vessel malformation

  • Bowel ischemia or bowel obstruction

  • Colon cancer

  • Constipation

  • Diverticulosis

  • Esophageal trauma or esophageal varices

  • Gastroenteritis

  • Hemorrhoid

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)

  • Intestinal infection (food poisoning)

  • Intestinal polyps or intestinal tumor

  • Meckel’s diverticulum (an abnormal pouch near the lower end of the small intestine)

  • Rectal prolapse

  • Stomach varices

Other causes of bloody diarrhea

Bloody diarrhea can also be caused by:

Serious or life-threatening causes of bloody diarrhea

Any type of bloody stools should be evaluated by a health care professional. Bloody diarrhea can indicate a serious and potentially life-threatening disease, disorder or condition including:

  • Bleeding peptic ulcer

  • Bowel obstruction

  • Food poisoning

  • Ruptured esophageal varices

  • Severe abdominal trauma

What are the potential complications of bloody diarrhea?

Over time, bloody diarrhea can lead to serious complications including:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Oct 19
  1. Bloody or tarry stools. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003130.htm.
  2. Dysentery. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/topics/dysentery/en/.
  3. Gastrointestinal Bleeding. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/gastrointestinalbleeding.html.
  4. Lower Gastrointestinal Bleeding. Medscape. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/188478-overview.
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