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Stools - pale or clay-colored

Definition

Stools that are pale, or clay- or putty-colored may result from problems in the biliary system (the drainage system of the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas).

Considerations

The liver releases bile salts into the stool, giving it a normal brown color. You may have clay-colored stools if you have a liver infection that reduces bile production, or if the flow of bile out of the liver is blocked.

Yellow skin (jaundice) often occurs with clay-colored stools due to the buildup of bile chemicals in the body.

Common Causes

Possible causes for clay-colored stools include:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Biliary cirrhosis
  • Cancer or noncancerous (benign) tumors
  • Cysts of the bile ducts
  • Gallstones
  • Medications
  • Narrowings (strictures) of the bile ducts
  • Sclerosing cholangitis
  • Structural problems in the biliary system that are present from birth (congenital)
  • Viral hepatitis

There may be other causes not listed here.

Call your health care provider if

Call your health care provider if your stools vary from the normal brown color.

What to expect at your health care provider's office

The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms. Questions may include:

  • When did the symptom first occur?
  • Does the discoloration affect every stool?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

Tests that may be done include:

  • Blood tests, including tests to check liver function and for viruses that might affect the liver
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • Imaging studies such as an abdominal ultrasound or CT scan

References

Berk PD, Korenblat KM. Approach to the patient with jaundice or abnormal liver test results. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2007:chap 150.


Review Date: 8/14/2010
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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