While normal stool is usually solid and brown, there can be many variations. Foamy or frothy stool is typically diarrhea-like and may appear to have bubbles in it. It may also seem oily or contain mucus.
Foamy stool is often caused by a reaction to certain foods. If this is the case, it will be an isolated incident and resolve with time and hydration.
However, foamy stool can also signal an underlying medical condition. Read on to learn more about causes and treatments, and when to see a doctor.
The five most common causes of foamy stool include:
A bacterial, parasitic, or viral infection can invade the gastrointestinal tract and create gas bubbles, making stool appear foamy.
A common source of infection is the Giardia parasite. A person may be infected after consuming contaminated water or food. They may also come into contact with contaminated water when swimming, for example.
Other symptoms of an infection include:
- stomach cramping
- unexplained weight loss
It can take anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks for symptoms of an infection to resolve.
2. Irritable bowel syndrome
People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may have mucus in their stool, which can make the stool appear foamy.
Additional symptoms of IBS include:
3. Malabsorption disorder
When the body cannot effectively absorb or use nutrients in food, this is called malabsorption disorder.
One common malabsorption disorder is celiac disease. This involves a person having an allergic reaction to consuming gluten, leading to intestines becoming inflamed and other gastrointestinal symptoms such as changes in stools.
Dietary intolerances to other foods can cause similar symptoms. These foods include:
- sugar alcohols, such as mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol
A person may have foamy stool after eating a certain type of food. They may also feel bloated or nauseous.
4. Abdominal surgeries
Abdominal surgeries can affect digestion. These may include operations to remove a portion of the large or small intestine.
Surgeries may cause short bowel syndrome, which can lead to chronic diarrhea and foamy stool. This condition may be temporary and resolve once the body heals.
However, if a person has this syndrome in the long term, a doctor will usually recommend supplements to ensure that the individual receives adequate nutrition.
Pancreatitis can be an acute or chronic condition. It hinders a person's ability to digest fats.
This condition can cause significant pain, especially in the upper abdominal region, and pain can spread to the back.
Beyond foamy stool, the following symptoms are also associated with pancreatitis:
- rapid heart rate
- swollen abdomen
Pancreatitis may require admission to a hospital for treatment.
Frothy or foamy stool is especially common in babies and is not usually a cause for concern.
Foamy stool in babies is often a sign that they are getting an overload of lactose, a sugar found in breast milk.
Breast milk consists of two parts: foremilk and hindmilk. Foremilk comes out for several minutes as the baby begins to feed. It is followed by the richer and thicker hindmilk.
Foremilk has fewer nutrients than hindmilk, and if a baby is getting too much foremilk, they will not be able to digest lactose correctly, which may cause stool changes.
If a baby has foamy stool frequently, it may be a good idea to breast-feed for at least 20 minutes on one side before switching to the other. This will ensure that the baby is receiving enough hindmilk.
Treatments for foamy stool depend upon the underlying cause.
A doctor may recommend eliminating foods that often cause intolerances. This can help to determine whether one or more of these foods is responsible for the symptom.
If a person is diagnosed with IBS, a doctor or dietitian can help to develop a diet plan that will reduce symptoms. A person may want to avoid foods that commonly cause gas, as well as fried foods.
It may be helpful to keep a food diary, to determine which foods lead to IBS symptoms.
A person can use electrolyte powder to make rehydrating drinks. Electrolyte powder is available for purchase online.
Pancreatitis is usually treated with intravenous fluids and pain medications. In some cases, antibiotics may be necessary. If a person has chronic pancreatitis, a doctor may recommend surgery, though this is rare.
If a person has foamy stool on more than two occasions, they should see a doctor.
Seek immediate medical attention if any of the symptoms below accompany foamy stool:
- a temperature higher than 100.4°F
- bloody stool
- severe abdominal pain
- severe diarrhea that occurs for more than 2 days
A doctor can evaluate a person's symptoms and recommend tests to determine the underlying cause.
While foamy stool may be concerning, a change in diet may be all that is needed to reduce the amount of mucus causing the symptom.
If foamy stool is signaling a more serious condition, such as pancreatitis, a doctor can provide treatment, and recommend methods for pain management and prevention.