Pale stools can result from dietary choices, an infection, or an underlying medical problem, such as gallbladder or liver disease. Anyone with persistently white or clay-colored stools should seek medical advice.

If pale stools occur once with no other symptoms, it is usually safe to wait and see if the stool returns to its usual color. A child or infant with pale or white poop should see a doctor as soon as possible to rule out any underlying conditions.

In this article, learn about the causes of pale stool and other symptoms that may occur with them.

infographic showing what pale and other color stools meanShare on Pinterest
Infographic by Bailey Mariner

Bile from the liver, known as bilirubin, creates the typical brown hue of a healthy bowel movement. When the stool is very pale, it often means that not enough bile is reaching the stool.

Stools may contain low bile levels if there is a problem with the gallbladder, pancreas, or liver. People with consistently pale stools may want to talk with a doctor about conditions that affect these organs.

The most common reasons for a pale stool color include:

1. Foods

Some foods, such as fatty foods, may cause stool color to become yellow.

The occasional pale bowel movement is unlikely to be a cause for concern. Changing the diet may cause poop to return to its usual color.

What should poop look like?

2. Giardiasis

Giardiasis, also known as beaver fever, is an infection that may turn the stool yellow. Symptoms can result from an infection with Giardia lamblia, an intestinal parasite. A person can contract this parasite by drinking contaminated water or coming into contact with soil or stool that contains the parasite.

Giardiasis is present around the world, including all parts of the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Other symptoms of giardiasis include:

Symptoms start 1–2 weeks after infection and can 2–6 weeks to resolve, or longer in some cases. Prescription medicine can reduce the time symptoms last.

3. Medications

Many drugs and medications can damage the liver, especially with high doses.

Both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies, for example, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can harm the liver.

Large amounts of aluminum hydroxide, present in antacids, can cause stool to lighten in color. Barium sulfate, a type of contrast used for certain X-ray tests, can also cause pale stools.

Pale stools may be a sign of liver damage in a person who:

  • is taking a new drug
  • has been taking medication for some time
  • is taking high doses of a drug

With OTC drugs, it is best to stop taking the drug and see a doctor as soon as possible. For prescription drugs, people should speak with their doctor before stopping the drug.

Which drugs cause liver damage?

4. Gallbladder disease

The gallbladder holds bile and is located on the upper right side of the stomach, next to the liver. During digestion, the gallbladder releases bile into the intestines through the bile duct. Gallbladder diseases can change the color of stool.

Gallstones, one of the most common gallbladder diseases, can block the bile duct.

As well as pale stool, it can cause:

Without treatment, gallstones can cause problems with other organs, such as the pancreas and liver.

Treatments for gallbladder problems depend on the cause. A doctor may have to remove gallstones, either surgically or with medication to dissolve them.

A person can live without a gallbladder, and so a doctor may remove it if gallstones keep returning. The person may need to change their diet after surgery.

What are the most common gallbladder problems?

5. Liver problems

Problems with the liver or bile ducts can turn the stool pale.

There are two forms of bilirubin in the body. One type is passed in the urine or feces and the other type is bound to protein (albumin), which helps it stay in the blood vessels.

When a person has liver or biliary problems, bilirubin is unable to pass in the stool. This causes the stool to lose its color, giving it a paler or clay-colored appearance.

Conversely, the body excretes excess bilirubin in the urine, giving it a darker or amber-colored appearance.

There are many types of liver disease, including:

In addition to pale stool, other symptoms of liver disease include:

Anyone under a doctor’s care for liver disease should report any changes in stool color.

Treatment for liver disease depends on the cause and how far it has progressed.

For mild liver disease, a person may only need medication and lifestyle changes. Those with severe liver disease may need a liver transplant.

Sometimes problems with other organs — such as the gallbladder — lead to liver symptoms. In this case, a doctor must treat the underlying condition as well.

Examples of bile duct problems include bile duct obstruction, which may be due to bile duct stones.

What is cirrhosis?

6. Pancreatic problems

Diseases of the pancreas can make it hard for this organ to secrete pancreatic juices into the digestive system. This can lead to the food moving too quickly through the gut, resulting in a pale and fatty-looking stool.

Examples of problems with the pancreas include pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Both can involve jaundice, with the following symptoms:

  • pale and fatty stools
  • dark urine
  • yellowing of the whites of the eyes

Pancreatitis refers to swelling and inflammation of the pancreas.

It can result from various conditions, including:

  • infections
  • autoimmune pancreatitis
  • gallstones
  • high alcohol consumption
  • the use of some drugs

Chronic pancreatitis can also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Treatment for pancreatitis depends on the cause. The doctor may address an underlying issue, such as gallstones.

Some people need hospitalization, intravenous fluids, and pain management. If a bacterial infection is present, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

What is the best diet for someone with pancreatitis?

Pale stools in children are not necessarily a medical emergency if they occur once and are pale but not white.

Breastfed babies often have light yellowish-brown stools. Once they start transitioning to solids, their stool usually becomes browner.

When the stool is white or very light brown, this can signal a more serious problem, such as cholestasis, a type of liver disease.

In newborns, cholestasis or any other problem with the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas may be a medical emergency. A caregiver should call their pediatrician right away.

If the baby has other symptoms, turns yellow, or appears to be in pain, they must go straight to the emergency room.

In older children who have no other symptoms, it is usually safe to wait for the next bowel movement.

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White or clay-colored stools during pregnancy usually indicate a problem with the gallbladder, liver, biliary ducts, or pancreas. Some people develop a pregnancy-related liver disease called cholestasis of pregnancy.

Symptoms of cholestasis include pale stool as well as:

  • intense itchiness
  • pain under the ribs on the upper right side of the stomach
  • dark urine even when hydrated
  • nausea
  • exhaustion beyond that of a typical pregnancy
  • jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes, fingernail beds, or skin

It is not clear precisely what causes cholestasis, but pregnancy hormones might affect liver functioning.

Treatment can include medication and frequent monitoring, including blood work and ultrasound scans. In some cases, an early deliver might be necessary.

How will pregnancy affect your body?

A doctor will ask some questions and may carry out a physical examination.

They may ask:

  • When did you first notice this symptom?
  • Are all your stools pale?
  • What medications do you use?
  • Do you have any other health conditions?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

To investigate pale stools, a doctor may recommend the following tests:

  • blood tests to assess liver function and look for signs of infection
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
  • imaging studies, for instance, an abdominal ultrasound, a CT scan, or MRI of the liver and bile ducts

What are the symptoms of liver disease, and how do doctors diagnose it?

The outlook will depend on the cause of pale stools.

If a person’s stools are pale because of certain foods or supplements, changing the diet or regime will usually help.

The outlook for pancreatitis varies. In around 2% of cases, it can be fatal. It can also increase the risk of other conditions, such as pancreatic cancer.

For people with pancreatic cancer, the chance of surviving 5 years or longer after diagnosis is around 42%, if it is still limited to the pancreas. If cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the 5-year survival rate is about 3%.

Gallstones can be life threatening, especially if a person needs emergency surgery, as is a risk of complications.

Various factors can lead to pale stools. It is not always possible to prevent pale stools, but people can lower the risk of developing certain diseases, such as pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer.

Some ways to prevent pancreatitis include:

  • following a low fat diet
  • avoiding smoking
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • maintaining a moderate weight

Similar measures may also help prevent pancreatic cancer.

To reduce the risk of liver disease, a person can:

  • limit alcohol intake
  • maintain a moderate weight
  • eat a balanced diet
  • follow all instructions when taking medications
  • having hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations, if a doctor recommends them

Which foods protect the liver?

Diseases of the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas can quickly become life threatening, but they are usually treatable.

If symptoms arise, such as pale stools, it is best to seek help as soon as possible, as leaving them can lead to lasting damage and complications.

Sometimes a person passes one pale stool, and then the usual color returns. If pale stools persist, it is best to seek medical advice promptly, especially if there are other symptoms, such as pain, dark urine, vomiting, or a fever.

Here are some answers to questions people often ask about pale stool.

What does pale stool mean?

Pale stools can indicate problems in the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, or pancreas. Dietary factors can also play a role. Giardiasis, a parasitic infection, can cause yellow stools.

Is it serious?

Without treatment, the conditions underlying pale stools can be serious or lead to severe complications. Anyone with persistently pale stools should seek medical advice.

Bowel movements reveal important information about a person’s health. One pale stool is not usually a matter for concern, but frequent pale stools can indicate diseases of the liver, pancreas, or gallbladder.

In some cases, treatment can help a person feel better within a few days or weeks. Other underlying conditions require long-term management.

Read this article in Spanish.