Why White Stool Happens and What You Should Do
Although the color of your stool can change due to the different foods and medications you take in, it is typically brownish due to the digestion of bile salts. These are digestive agents made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.
Medications containing aluminum hydroxide can turn your stool white, as can barium, which is a white substance sometimes used to help show the digestive tract during an X-ray scan.
Learn more about the causes of white stool, how to treat those causes, and when to contact a doctor.
A reduction or absence of bile salts can cause your stool to become a pale clay-like color.
Bile salt production can reduce due to severe liver disease, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis. The passage of bile salts into the intestines can decrease due to blockages of the bile ducts inside or outside of the liver as a result of inflammation, gallstones, or external compression.
Pain — especially in the right upper abdomen — fever, nausea, itching, and yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice) can also occur with these conditions.
White stool may be the result of conditions that decrease the amount of bile salts that reach the intestines, including:
- biliary atresia, which is a condition present at birth involving atypical bile duct development
- biliary cirrhosis, or inflammation of bile ducts in the liver
- biliary stricture, which is a narrowing of the common bile duct
- cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver due to chronic liver damage
- cancer or tumors of the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, or pancreas
- hepatitis, which refers to liver infection or inflammation
- sclerosing cholangitis, or bile duct inflammation and scarring
White stool can also be the result of certain substances, including:
- aluminum hydroxide, which is an ingredient in antacids such as AlternaGEL, Alu-Tab, and Amphojel, as well as some formulations of Maalox and Mylanta
- barium, which is a white substance that can be swallowed or used in an enema to help outline the digestive tract during an X-ray scan
In some cases, white stool may be a symptom of a serious or life threatening condition to do with the liver or gallbladder that requires immediate evaluation in a medical setting. These conditions may include:
- acute cholecystitis
- acute hepatitis, which refers to liver infection or inflammation
- liver failure
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare 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?
Your doctor may then order certain tests, including blood or imaging tests.
If you have one pale stool with no other symptoms and then resume your typical bowel movements, it may not be a cause for concern.
However, if you are seeing white stool regularly and experiencing other symptoms, you should visit a doctor.
Treatments for white stool will depend on the cause, but they could include:
- undergoing gallstone surgery or removal
- reducing your alcohol intake
- taking medications or changing your medications
- undergoing surgery to correct liver or pancreas problems
- taking vitamin supplements
You should contact a doctor if you or your child has two or more consistent pale or white stools. You should also call a doctor if there are any other symptoms, such as extreme tiredness, a high fever, abdominal pain, or weight loss.
Ask the doctor if they would like you to bring in a stool sample, as this can be helpful if testing is needed.
It is normal for children to have different colored stools. Often, colored stool is due to something the child has eaten. However, white stool is almost never normal in children.
White stool in children may indicate a problem with the child’s liver. If the child passes more than two white or very pale stools, call a doctor. The child may need surgery to correct a liver problem called biliary atresia that can cause white stool.
White stool may accompany other symptoms. These can differ based on what is causing the white stool. Some conditions that affect the stool may also involve other body systems.
Digestive tract symptoms that may occur along with white stool
White stool may also happen with symptoms affecting the digestive tract, such as:
- abdominal pain or cramping
- abdominal swelling, distension, or bloating
- unusually foul smelling stool
- changes in stool consistency
- nausea with or without vomiting
Other symptoms that may occur along with white stool
White stool may also happen with other symptoms elsewhere in the body, including:
- bone or joint pain
- easy bleeding or bruising
- itchy skin
- unexplained weight loss
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition
In some cases, white stool may be a symptom of a life threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care for any of these life threatening symptoms:
- a change in the level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
- a change in mental status or a sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations, and delusions
- high fever (higher than 101ºF or 38.3ºC)
- not producing any urine
- fewer wet diapers (in infants)
- severe abdominal pain
Stool is typically brown due to the digestion of bile salts, which are made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Without enough bile salt, however, stool can be pale or even white. White stool can occur with liver disease or problems with the bile ducts.
White stool can also occur with certain medications and barium, which is sometimes used in X-ray studies of the digestive tract. White stool in children could also indicate a problem with the liver.
If you or a child has more than two white or very pale stools, you should call a doctor.