Don’t pooh-pooh it: Signs you need to see a doctor about your bowel movements

Mar 17, 2021
It's best to seek a professional diagnosis before accessing over-the-counter medicine for bowel issues. Source: Getty

It’s often said that symptoms are your ticket into the medical system. One of the most common symptoms, especially as we age, are changes in our bowel habit in some form.

These symptoms can vary from changes in frequency and consistency, such as obvious diarrhoea or constipation, to a difference in the colour of stools and/or obvious blood loss. Also, to bring up a somewhat unpleasant concept, the odour of our stools may also change.

The problem for a non-medical person is how to know when this change should be reported to your doctor. Firstly, and probably most importantly, is when you notice a significant and ongoing change either way. I.e. If you are experiencing increasing constipation or increasing diarrhoea, this is a red flag that you should discuss it with your doctor.

Diarrhoea and/or constipation

In milder cases, diarrhoea or constipation may be purely related to a dietary change, some new medications or often even over-the-counter supplements or vitamins. One very good example is that many people are now using magnesium supplements in some form, which in my experience cause diarrhoea in about 10 per cent of people (a result of having absorbed too much magnesium).

More dramatic diarrhoea or constipation, however, is a sign there’s a more significant underlying problem that needs to be addressed. If this is present for more than a week or two and doesn’t appear to be settling, you need to make an appointment with your general practitioner immediately.

The causes can be anything from some type of bowel infection, irritable bowel syndrome to more serious inflammatory bowel diseases. The other thing we should be constantly aware of and screened for is bowel cancer.

A big mistake is to simply seek out an over-the-counter preparation (of which there are many) for diarrhoea and constipation. This is not something that should be done until a firm diagnosis has been made by your doctor.

Rectal bleeding and dark stools

Another significant bowel issue is any form of rectal bleeding. Bright red bleeding when you open your bowels or wipe yourself is typically due to haemorrhoids but also may be the first sign of a more serious condition.

Very dark stools are typically related to bleeding in the upper part of the gut, or possibly iron tablets taken for other reasons. Black stools and significant bright red rectal bleeding should be considered medical emergencies and you should urgently seek medical help.

Anaemia and low iron

As an aside, if you’ve had blood tests and are found to be anaemic and/or low in iron (especially the ferritin level), your doctor should be hunting for a cause – not just giving you iron supplements. Also, it’s important to be aware that not all anaemia is due to low iron levels in the body.

The most important point I’m trying to make here is that you shouldn’t ignore a change in your bowel habit. This is because the earlier a significant condition is detected, the greater the chance of treatment being effective and the condition being cured.

For a lighter take on bowel issues, check out our blog: ‘I can’t stop laughing about the solution to my constipation problems’.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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