Light-colored stools in infants or adults can be caused by lack of bile in the digestive system. Hepatitis B, irritable bowel syndrome, or a stomach infection can cause clay-colored stool, also known as acholic stool. Read on for more information about causes and treatment options.
Light-colored stool symptoms
Looking at your stool (poop) in the toilet may not be enjoyable, but being aware of the color and consistency can shed light on your overall health and signal the presence of possible underlying conditions.
The color of stool is determined by diet and the amount of a substance called bile remaining in the stool after digestion. Bile helps break down dietary fats (lipids). Bile is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, which is located just underneath the liver. See an image of the liver and gallbladder here.
When there is too much bile in the stool, it can appear green. When there is a lack of bile in the stool, it can appear light-colored or white. White or light-colored stools are most often seen in infants but can occur in adults as well.
Characteristics in adults
If you are an adult experiencing white or light-colored stools you may also have associated symptoms such as:
- Jaundice: This is yellowing of the skin and eyes.
- Upper right abdominal pain
- Pain that changes with eating or hunger
Characteristics in infants
If you notice that your infant is experiencing white or light-colored stools (regarding infants, you may hear the term acholic stools or clay-colored stools), take note of symptoms such as:
- Jaundice: This is yellowing of the skin and eyes.
- General discomfort: Increased crying, fussiness, etc.
- Weight loss or inability to gain weight
- Dark-colored urine
Light-colored stools, in both adults and children, are always abnormal and require prompt follow-up with a physician.
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Light-colored stool causes
Biliary system structures
As discussed above, light-colored stool represents a lack of bile. Conditions that affect the production or flow of bile involve the biliary tract or biliary system (also known as the biliary tree) which includes the following organs:
- Liver: The liver is the largest abdominal organ responsible for multiple metabolic processes of the body including processing food into energy, removing toxins from the body and storing nutrients the body can use for later.
- Gallbladder: This is a small organ under the liver that stores a fluid called bile. Bile helps break down fat.
- Common bile duct: The common bile duct is an important tubal structure that connects all of the organs above and allows for bile to flow properly through the digestive system. It carries bile from the liver and gallbladder through to the small intestine.
See an image of the biliary system here.
These organs and ducts work together to make, store and secrete bile and any condition that disrupts or damages this system and decreases or prevents the flow of bile can result in light-colored stool.
Obstructive causes that can result in light-colored stool include the following.
- Developmental: In infants, abnormal development of the biliary tree can result in complete loss of patency (closure) of the ducts, impeding bile flow at birth and resulting in acholic stools. This condition is known as biliary atresia. Biliary atresia is the most common cause of neonatal jaundice and the most common reason for liver transplantation in children.
- Stones: As discussed above, the gallbladder is a component of the biliary tree. Often, stones (gallstones) can form inside the gallbladder. When gallstones obstruct the common bile duct. This obstruction can impede bile drainage and prevent bile from being excreted into the stools.
- Cancer: Any malignancy of the biliary tree can result in obstruction of the ducts necessary for bile flow. For example, cancer in the head of the pancreas can directly impinge upon the common bile duct as seen in this image here.
The liver is susceptible to inflammation (hepatitis) and injury from a variety of causes. Since the liver produces bile, hepatitis can result in decreased production of bile leading to light-colored stools.
- Infectious: Although bacterial, fungal and parasitic pathogens can also infect the liver, the main infectious agent of the liver is viral. Viral hepatitis, in addition to many other side effects such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, can result in clay-colored or light stools.
- Autoimmune: Many inflammatory diseases that result in the body attacking itself can also affect the biliary tree and its organs, cause injury that results in damage to the liver, and, ultimately, decreased production or flow of bile into the stool. For example, primary biliary cholangitis is a condition where immune cells attack the bile ducts and cause destruction and eventual disappearance of the ducts.
Dietary reasons for light-colored stool can include the following.
- Medications: Medications such as PeptoBismol and other drugs used to treat diarrhea can cause light-colored stools when they are taken in large doses or consumed for a prolonged period of time.
- Toxic substances: Alcohol can be toxic to the biliary tree, primarily the liver, and cause hepatitis.
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Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). There are other hepatitis viruses (A, C, D, E) that may behave and be transmitted differently. HBV causes swelling and inflammation of the liver that prevents its normal function. HBV can cause a short-term, acute illness t...
Possible early irritable bowel syndrome (ibs)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is very common problem that affects the large intestine. It can cause stomach pain, cramps, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. Doctors think that IBS is caused by the brain sending wrong messages to the bowels, such as during times of high stress, causing physical changes. The formal criteria for this diagnosis requires 3 months of symptoms. Therefore you may have an early presentation.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, stool changes, constipation
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Non specific stool change
There are many factors affecting the appearance of someone's stools. Often a variation in stool color and/or consistency is caused by food or medicines. Leafy greens and certain vegetables like spinach and kale can make stool look green. Iron supplements and medicines containing bismuth like Pepto-bismol can turn stools black. It looks like your stool change is probably a variation of normal.
Top Symptoms: black stool, green poop, dark brown stool, red stool
Symptoms that never occur with non specific stool change: tarry stool, weight loss, rectal bleeding, fever
Urgency: Wait and watch
Normal occurrence of diarrhea
Diarrhea can be an indication of serious illness – especially in young children – but in some cases it has a much simpler cause and can be easily cured.
If there are simply frequent loose stools – three or more times per day – without other symptoms of illness, the most common cause is food or drink.
Overuse of caffeine, beer, or wine has a laxative effect on some individuals. The artificial sweeteners sorbitol and mannitol are known laxatives, as are some herbal supplements and some over-the-counter vitamin and mineral preparations.
Lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest the natural sugar in milk, causes digestive upset and diarrhea.
Diarrhea can cause dehydration and mineral imbalance no matter what the cause, so it is still important to manage it.
The best treatment is to remove some items or supplements from the diet and watch the results. This will show which items are causing the diarrhea.
It's always wise to use any new supplements in moderation so that if the trouble recurs, the cause will be plain.
Top Symptoms: diarrhea, mild diarrhea
Symptoms that always occur with normal occurrence of diarrhea: diarrhea
Symptoms that never occur with normal occurrence of diarrhea: bloody diarrhea, severe diarrhea, worsening diarrhea, being severely ill, ill appearance
The liver is a large and important organ in the right side of your belly, just under your lower ribs. It is responsible for countless functions from clearing toxins to processing nutrients to producing vital blood proteins. As a result, liver failure can cause a wide array of symptoms, but the mos...
Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.
The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.
Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.
Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.
Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Hepatitis A is a contagious infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus (HAV). HAV causes swelling and inflammation of the liver that impairs its normal function. Hepatitis A can cause gastrointestinal upset, fever, malaise and other symptoms, and the infection can last from weeks to months....
Liver cancer can be caused by a primary cancer of liver cells or metastatic cancer to the liver from another part of the body. Primary liver cancer is almost always caused by an underlying chronic condition affecting the liver (virus, toxins, etc).
Many liver cancers do not start causing symptoms un...
Light-colored stool treatments and relief
Treatment for light-colored stool will be dependent on the specific cause of symptoms. Since there are multiple causes for light-colored stool, it is important to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss possible treatment options. Your physician may discuss treatment options that include:
- Surgery: Surgery is often the first-line treatment option for obstructive causes leading to light-colored stool. For example, surgery to remove gallstones or the gallbladderentirely (cholecystectomy) is a common procedure, especially forpeople whosuffer from chronic gallstones.
- Medications: If your symptoms are inflammatory in nature, there are many medications your physician may prescribe in order to alleviate your symptoms. For example, in the case of viral hepatitis, there are antiviral medications for some strains (Hepatitis B).
- Cancer treatment: If your associated symptoms aredue to cancer, your physician will discuss treatment options including surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
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FAQs about light-colored stool
Here are some frequently asked questions about light-colored stool.
Can I prevent the formation of gallstones?
Yes, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly are the best ways to prevent the formation of gallstones. Studies show that people who are overweight are more likely to develop gallstones.
Should I be concerned if I notice light-colored stool?
Light-colored stools are not normal and should be followed-up promptly with your physician or healthcare provider. Light-colored stools may signal an underlying obstruction or disease-process of the organs of the biliary tree. There are unique resources that have been tested for the proper identification of light-colored stools, such as a mobile app.
Should I be concerned if I notice that my baby has light-colored stool?
Yes, light-colored stool (also known as acholic stool) in an infant can be a sign of a condition called biliary atresia. Biliary atresia is a disease of the liver and biliary tree where the bile ducts develop abnormally and are too narrow, blocked, or completely absent. This condition requires surgical treatment and in some severe cases may necessitate a liver transplant.
Do gallstones have to be removed with surgery?
No. Gallstones do not have to be removed with surgery. There are oral medications that can be taken to break down or dissolve gallstones without surgical involvement. However, this is not always the best solution for everyone. The success of oral therapy depends on the size and composition of the gallstones in addition to the functionality of the gallbladder and duct system. Discuss these factors with your physician and all of your options for treatment.
Are any of the hepatitises curable?
Hepatitis A and B are not curable, but they are very manageable using antiviral therapies, and at times, just supportive care. However, due to advances in drug treatments approved by the FDA, Hepatitis C is now a curable disease. According to Jeffrey S. Murray, MD, an internist at the FDA who specializes in infectious disease, "Hepatitis C can be cured and today's drug therapies are very effective and easier for patients to take".
Questions your doctor may ask about light-colored stool
- Have you experienced any nausea?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you had any changes in your weight?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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- Purohit T, Cappell MS. Primary biliary cirrhosis: Pathophysiology, clinical presentation and therapy. World J Hepatol. 2015;7(7):926-941. NCBI Link
- Franciscovich A, Vaidya D, Doyle J, et al. PoopMD, a mobile health application, accurately identifies infant acholic stools. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(7):e0132270. PubMed Link
- Hepatitis C treatments give patients more options. Food and Drug Administration. Updated May 4, 2017. FDA Link