Bowel movement habits and appearance are important indicators of digestive health. Changes in stools appearance, whether it’s color or shape, odor or texture, can point out hidden pathologies. But how many of us are equipped to notice unusual bowel movements? Very few people actually monitor their bowel habits or know how their stools normally look and feel like. This means very few people will be able to identify potentially problematic changes in their bowel movement routine and appearance if these occur.
This makes it imperative that we learn how our stools look like, what stools should look like in general and what changes represent a reason for concern so we know when to see a doctor. For the most part, any temporary changes in bowel movement habits or appearance are generally not a reason for concern. Especially if these changes can be explained by something different you ate or something different you did in the last couple of days (learn more about What Are Normal Bowel Movements Like).
However, more than a couple of bowel movement abnormalities warrant a visit to the doctor’s office to investigate the causes behind them. Factors to consider when monitoring your bowel movement routine include transit time and stools frequency and appearance which encompasses aspects like stool color, shape and size, consistency or texture, odor, ease or effort. This being said, learn more about these 17 unusual types of stools and what they mean:
- Stools with too much mucus
Mucus is a transparent, sometimes whitish or yellowish, jelly like substance produced in the intestines. It serves a protective role and facilitates the smooth passing of stools through the intestinal tract. While it’s normal to have stools with mucus, too much of it is unusual, especially if it occurs regularly. For the most part, mucus presence is unnoticeable or barely noticeable and this is normal. But unusual stool mucus amounts is odd and may indicate inflammation, caused by a viral, bacterial or parasitic infections, such as in gastroenteritis. Too much of it can be a sign of inflammatory bowel disease such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis or malabsorption problems, food intolerance or sensitivities.
- Holes, tunnels, black dots or specks, white fragments
These are unusual and may indicate the presence of a type of intestinal parasite in the stools. If there are tiny holes or tunnel-like hollow spaces throughout solid stools, these may be caused by intestinal worms. White fragments can be actual parasites or bits and pieces of worms, possibly also parasite eggs. If you experience other symptoms such as light diarrhea, abdominal cramps, apparently inexplicable gas or bloating, nausea and vomiting, fatigue and itching, then chances are you may have an intestinal parasite infection.
What do stool worms look like, you wonder? Sometimes you can see actual worms in stools, not just the holes or tunnels they leave behind. Anything from soft, white fragments to rounded or flat, short or long and thin, solid white, yellowish or transparent bits, pieces or thread-like presences may be signs of worms in stools. Read about Worms and Intestinal Parasites: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment. In some cases, white fragments in stools may be bits of undigested food. In my experience, almonds and other nuts may leave such impressions. Black dots or specks in stools can be bits of undigested food or indicate either intestinal parasites or a bowel condition. It would be best to get it checked out by a doctor if it’s a recurring problem.
- Painful stools
If you are constipated, you may feel sore for a few minutes after passing a stool. This is to be expected because of the strain involved or if the stool was voluminous or rough. A sharp pain that occurs when you pass a stool is likely caused by hemorrhoids or a fissure. The more constipated you are, the more acute the pain. However, the sharp pain only lasts a short while and is usually replaced by a dull pain and itching. Abdominal cramps can precede or occur together with diarrhea. But if you experience lower back pain, tailbone pain, leg pain, lower abdominal pain or other types of pain right before, during and after a bowel movement, it is time to see a doctor. Causes may include compressed nerves, sciatica and all sorts of spine-related problems.
- Bowel movements and dizziness
It’s unusual to experience dizziness with bowel movements. Urgency to have a bowel movement can cause a feeling of unwell, muscle weakness in arms and legs, lightheadedness, dizziness, sometimes nausea and vomiting sensation, cold chills and even blurred vision. In most cases, the symptoms disappear completely after a successful bowel motion. It has been theorized that these symptoms may be caused by constipation, transit irregularities or conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammation. If such symptoms occur with every motion and persist after a successful motion, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can. Also read Constipation and Feeling Unwell.
- Odorless stools and odiferous stools
Both are unusual and abnormal types of stools. A complete lack of stool odor is not normal because stools are essentially waste material, indigestible fiber and contain bacteria, all of which should produce some sort of odor. The utter lack of odor may be caused by a too fast a transit that doesn’t allow intestinal bacteria to colonize and properly ferment some kinds of foods or it could indicate an imbalance in gut bacteria populations. If other worrisome symptoms such as important changes in bowel habits and appearance of the likes of watery stools or constipation, leaky gut, too frequent motions or green, black, red, maroon or pale stools also occur, it’s time to see a doctor.
Odiferous stools, especially strong-smelling stools or stools with unusual odors are also reason for concern. Eating too much animal products or foods likely to cause bad body odor like eggs, fish, garlic, onions or cruciferous vegetables can explain why sometimes our bowel movements smell bad. As long as they’re temporary and can be explained by dietary changes, they are usually not a reason for concern. Actually, bowel movements that smell like ammonia can be caused by eating too much garlic, sometimes onions. Bowel movements that smell like gas can be caused by eating eggs and those that smell like eggs can be caused by eating beans. Bowel movements that smell like fish or are just very smelly can be caused by anything from too much meat to too much eggs to too much dairy.
But permanently strong-smelling stools are not healthy and suggest an imbalance in gut bacteria populations or poor eating. Loose stools that are also very smelly can be a sign of an infection, either gastroenteritis or parasitic infections. Other causes include inflammatory bowel conditions and food intolerance.
- Pebble stools
Bowel movements shaped like pebbles, pellets, marbles or rabbit droppings are a fairly common occurrence. Such fragmented stools with a hard consistency and sometimes rough texture, that are also hard to pass, are a clear sign of constipation. Whether you haven’t been drinking enough water, had too much coffee or other dehydrating beverages, sat down for too long or didn’t eat enough fiber, pebble stools mean severe constipation.
- Stools that float
Do you think bowel movements should sink or float? Believe it or not, it’s normal for bowel movements to gently sink to the bottom of the toilet bowl because, well, they can easily weigh a couple of hundred grams. Stools that float, which also often happen to smell bad and be greasy, can be caused by malabsorption problems having to do with the absorption of fat from food, pancreas, liver or gallbladder problems or indicate inflammation.
- Skinny bowel movements
Also known as pencil-thin stools, they are usually a reason for concern. If you’ve had normal-looking bowel movements all of your life, then one day start passing skinny, pencil-thin stools and continue to do do, call your doctor. This is abnormal and indicates an obstruction somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract, possibly caused by polyps, tumors or cancer.
- Bowel movements that stopped
You haven’t had a stool in over a week or longer? Then it’s definitely time to make an appointment with your doctor and find out why your bowel movements have stopped. While it’s clear that it’s a form of constipation, it may be triggered by something more serious such as impacted or obstructed stools.
- Bowel movements that are too soft
Normal stools should be solid, well-formed, but soft. Too soft stools indicate diarrhea, whereas too hard ones are a sign of constipation. While it’s not unusual to have soft, mushy stools once in a while, if you’ve eaten too much fiber or mixed soda with milk or coffee, continual passing of mushy stools is not good. Not only does it irritate, but it also indicates inflammation and may be a sign of irritable bowel, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, food intolerance and other gastrointestinal conditions.
- Bowel movements with blood
Normal stool color is brown. Bright red, maroon or brown with red undertones and black stools are abnormal and indicate bleeding somewhere along the gastrointestinal tract. Red stools show bleeding happening closer by. Maroon may mean blood that has been digested. Black stool color is definitely older blood, possibly coming from higher up in the gastrointestinal tract. If you haven’t eaten beets, chocolate, Oreo or taken iron supplements or charcoal-based products, make an appointment with your doctor.
- Frequent stools after eating, but not diarrhea
What causes frequent, but normal bowel movements? It depends on what you mean by frequent. It’s actually normal to have 3 and up to 5 bowel movements a day, depending on how much you eat, how fast your transit is, what’s your fiber intake etc. However, having bowel movements all day or more than 5 times a day is not normal and usually indicates a too fast a transit which predisposes to malabsorption problems. Too frequent stools may also be soft, even mushy or green-colored. What is the normal bowel movement per day? 3 times a day, in the morning when you wake up or after every main meal is actually ideal, but so is 1 bowel movement every 3 days.
- Frequent stools and gas, but not diarrhea
May be a sign of intolerance to certain foods or food groups or eating too many gas-producing foods. Examples include milk and dairy, some cereal, legumes like beans or peas, onions, garlic, cabbage, cauliflower etc. May also be a sign of a digestive condition like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease etc. Some people experience softer stools, so not quite diarrhea, and this could sometimes be an indication of inflammation caused by a digestive condition. Because not everyone experiences the same symptoms, it can help to talk to a doctor and adjust your diet to manage symptoms.
- Voluminous stools
Stools that are bulkier, bigger, large in diameter or a bit heavier are considered normal, especially for those who have a bowel movement every three days or more rarely than that. But too voluminous stools that are hard to pass are often a sign of constipation, even if you are regular. It could help to increase water and fiber intake and exercise more to increase stool frequency.
- Bowel movements at night
What this says about your is that you may be suffering from a mild form of constipation: you are not regular because of an improper diet or lack of exercise or are drinking too little water. At the same time, bowel movements at night can occur because you have a different schedule such as working nights which shifts your eating and sleeping and causes subsequent shifts in your bowel habits.
- Discolored stools
Pale stools, meaning clay-colored stools, pale yellow, grey or whitish stools, are abnormal colors. While there may be objective causes to this unusual discoloration (certain medication, antacids, eating only light-colored foods for a while), if you experience more than a few such bowel movements, it might be good to see a doctor and check if you’re okay. Learn more about what color are normal bowel movements in the article about Stool Color: What They Mean.
- Normal BM then by diarrhea
Depending on accompanying symptoms, having normal bowel movements then diarrhea can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection known as gastroenteritis, bad reaction to a certain food or food intolerance, side effects of certain medication such as antibiotics or some antacids, mixing the wrong foods (coffee and soda, soda and milk, soda and bone broth or chicken soup) or inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or colitis.