Whatever you call it — poop, bowel movements, stool, or feces — it can reveal a lot about a person’s health. Floating poop is common and not usually a sign that anything is wrong.
Gas, changes in the diet, and minor infections may cause poop to float. Some underlying medical conditions can also cause persistent floating stool.
In this article, learn about what causes floating poop. We also cover which signs and symptoms warrant a visit to the doctor.
Floating poop is rarely a cause for concern. In many cases, a person might not be able to identify a cause for their floating poop.
As long as there are no other symptoms and their stool returns to normal over time, it is not usually necessary to see a doctor.
Some possible causes of floating poop include:
1. Fiber consumption
A stool is less likely to float when it is dense. Foods rich in fiber, especially insoluble fiber, make poop less dense.
Fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, form a vital part of a healthful diet, so floating stool due to fiber consumption may actually signal good health.
As many as 95% of adults and children in the United States do not consume enough fiber. Recommendations for fiber intake vary by age and sex.
Women aged 19 to 50 should consume at least 25 grams (g) of fiber per day, while men in the same age group need at least 38 g of daily fiber.
Gas lowers the density of poop, causing it to float. Many high-fiber foods, such as beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower, can cause gas.
Some people also develop gas when they change their diet. If poop floats after eating a new food or when switching to a new diet, gas could be the culprit.
3. Stomach infection
An infection in the gastrointestinal tract, such as from E. coli, Salmonella, or norovirus, may cause the poop to float.
Sometimes, these infections also cause gas, which lowers the density of poop. In other cases, they change the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, leading to malabsorption or a fatty stool.
Most stomach infections are temporary and go away without treatment. A person should drink plenty of fluids and rest while they are recovering from a stomach infection. If the symptoms get worse or do not improve with time, see a doctor.
4. Gastrointestinal disorders
Some gastrointestinal disorders can cause poop to float. A 2015 study found that 26% of people with functional bowel disorders — conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional dyspepsia — had floating stools.
Additionally, 3% of those with functional gastrointestinal disorders — a group of disorders that affect movement in the digestive tract — had floating stools.
For some people, floating poop may be the first warning sign of a gastrointestinal or bowel problem. When floating stool occurs alongside other symptoms, such as pain, diarrhea, bloating, or constipation, it may signal an underlying gastrointestinal issue.
When the stool is very fatty, it may float. The medical term for this is steatorrhea. A fatty stool that floats may mean that a person is not adequately absorbing nutrients from food.
Some conditions that can cause malabsorption include:
- Lactose intolerance: Lactose intolerance is an inability to metabolize lactose properly. This occurs when a person’s digestive system produces too little of an enzyme known as lactase. It is also the most common cause of malabsorption. People with lactose intolerance may experience bloating and diarrhea when they consume milk, cheese, or other dairy products.
- Small intestine disorders: Disorders that affect the small intestine can cause malabsorption. People who have had a portion of their small intestine surgically removed, such as to treat Crohn’s disease, may also experience malabsorption.
- Liver and biliary disease: The liver produces bile, which helps the body digest food. When little or no bile reaches the intestines, it may result in a fatty stool. A person may also lose weight or develop diarrhea. Liver disease, blocked bile ducts, and gallstones may cause a fatty stool.
6. Problems with the pancreas
Diseases of the pancreas can cause a fatty stool due to malabsorption. Malabsorption can occur when the pancreatic enzymes or bile do not travel in sufficient quantities to the small intestine.
The result is a fatty stool that may float or be difficult to flush. The stool may also be white or very pale. A person may also notice that they have very dark urine.
It is not possible to diagnose diseases of the pancreas based on a person’s symptoms alone. Pancreatic disorders are serious, so it is essential to get treatment as soon as possible.
There is no reason to panic because of floating stool. If the symptom persists, however, a doctor can offer reassurance and diagnose any underlying problems.
See a doctor if:
- a floating stool also looks very fatty or greasy, and the symptom persists for more than a few days
- a person experiences chronic constipation or diarrhea
- the stool is very light or pale
- a person begins losing weight without trying
- a person with an underlying medical condition develops changes in their bowel habits
- a person has very dark urine
Go to the emergency room or see a doctor immediately if:
- an infant has severe diarrhea and signs of dehydration, such as sunken eyes or chapped lips
- a person develops a high fever along with a floating stool
- a person has intense pain in the upper abdomen, especially on the right side, along with signs of liver or pancreatic issues, such as dark urine or pale stool
Poop is the body’s way of eliminating waste, and it typically reflects a person’s diet. Floating poop, changes in poop color, and other temporary changes in bowel habits are usually not a sign of a serious medical condition.
Nevertheless, a person can see a doctor if symptoms persist or get worse. A doctor can do a variety of tests to make a proper diagnosis.