Yellow Stool

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is yellow 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 yellow or pale. Bile salt production can be reduced due to severe liver disease such as hepatitis or cirrhosis. The passage of bile salts into the intestines can be prevented by blockages of the bile ducts due to 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 can also occur with these conditions.

The pancreas also produces substances important for digestion, including the enzyme lipase, which breaks down fats. Excess fat in the stool can cause yellowish, bulky stool that floats, has an oily or greasy appearance, and smells foul. Inflammation of the pancreas can reduce lipase production. Absence of lipase is uncommon, but can result from pancreatic cancer, severe pancreatic disease, cystic fibrosis, or abnormal lipase production that is present from birth (congenital).

Conditions that affect the intestines, especially those that interfere with fat absorption, can also cause yellow stool. For example, Giardia, a parasite that can be found in waste products and contaminated water, can cause yellow diarrhea, fever, and flu-like symptoms.

Yellow stool is unusual, and may be a symptom of a serious medical condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for severe abdominal pain, stool with blood or pus, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), significant vomiting, seizures, changes in mental status, or sudden behavior changes. Symptoms of dehydration such as decreased urination, increased thirst, fatigue, and light-headedness also require immediate medical care.

If your yellow stool persists for more than a day or two or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with yellow stool?

Yellow stool may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Digestive tract symptoms that may occur along with yellow stool

Yellow stool may accompany other digestive tract symptoms including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with yellow stool

Yellow stool may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, yellow stool may be a symptom of a 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, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Not producing any urine, or an infant who does not produce the usual amount of wet diapers
  • Pus in the stool
  • Respiratory or breathing problems such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or labored breathing
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting blood, rectal bleeding, or bloody stool

What causes yellow 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 yellow or grey. Liver disease can interfere with bile salt production, and anything that blocks the bile ducts can prevent bile salts from reaching the intestines.

Fats can also cause the stool to be yellow. Excess fat in the stool can be due to decreased fat digestion, which can occur with conditions involving the pancreas or decreased absorption in the intestines, which can occur with some intestinal conditions.

Bile salt-related causes of yellow stool

Yellow stool may be caused by conditions that decrease the amount of bile salts reaching 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 (bile duct narrowing)
  • Cirrhosis (liver scarring due to chronic damage)
  • Cancer or tumors of the liver, the bile ducts, the gallbladder, or the pancreas
  • Gallstones
  • Hepatitis (liver infection or inflammation)
  • Sclerosing cholangitis (bile duct inflammation and scarring)

Pancreatic causes of yellow stool

Yellow stool can be caused by conditions that reduce pancreatic lipase production or that block its transport to the intestines including:

  • Congenital pancreatic lipase deficiency (an abnormality of pancreatic lipase production present at birth)
  • Cystic fibrosis (a genetic disorder that interferes with lung and pancreatic function)
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

Intestinal causes of yellow stool

Yellow stool can also be caused by conditions that interfere with the ability of the intestines to absorb fat:

  • Celiac disease (a severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Parasite infections such as Giardia infection

Serious or life-threatening causes of yellow stool

In some cases, yellow stool may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of yellow stool

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your yellow stool including:

  • How long have you been having yellow stool?
  • How would you describe your stool?
  • Have you noticed any blood, mucus or pus in your stool?
  • Have you had yellow stool before?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of yellow stool?

Because yellow 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:

  • 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
  • Poor nutrition due to nausea, diarrhea, or a decreased desire to eat
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 2
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Stools - pale or clay-colored. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003129.htm.
  2. Diarrhea. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diarrhea/