Black (tar) Colored Stools

by Sam Malone

Black colored stools, also known as tarry stools, black tar poop, bloody stools, Hematochezia or Melena are often indicative of an injury or disorder in the digestive tract. The term melena is used to describe black colored, foul smelling stools while the term hematochezia is used to describe reddish or maroon colored stools.

Any injury or infection in the digestive tract that results in internal bleeding can cause black or reddish stools. The bleeding could come from anywhere between the mouth and the anus. This could be a small amount that cannot be detected except by a fecal occult blood test. If the bleeding is in sufficient quantities, it will change the color of your stools. The color of your stools can provide clues as to the location of the bleeding. A diagnosis can then be confirmed using imaging tests such as an x-ray or an endoscopy.

What do black stools indicate? Black stools usually mean that there is bleeding occurring in the upper part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This includes the esophagus, stomach and the beginning of the small intestine. The black color is caused by the action of gastric juices on the blood as it passes through the stomach and the intestines.

Maroon or bright red stools on the other hand indicate bleeding in the lower part of the GI tract. This includes the large bowel, rectum and anus. There are times though, when profuse and rapid bleeding in the stomach can cause bright red stools.

It is not only bleeding that can be responsible for black tar bowel movements. Certain foods can also cause black stools. Some of these include black licorice, iron supplements, blueberries, blackberries and bismuth medications such as Pepto-Bismol.  Eating lot of tomatoes and beet root can make your stools appear reddish. To rule out the possibility of your diet being the cause of your colored stools, your doctor may order certain tests to check for the presence of blood in your stools.

There are many different causes of black stools and treatment usually depends on the cause. Some of the causes of black stools include:

  • Abnormal blood vessels
  • Violent vomiting that results in a tear in the esophagus, also known as a Mallory-Weiss tear
  • Duodenal ulcers
  • Bleeding in the stomach
  • Gastritis causing inflammation of the stomach lining
  • Insufficient blood flow to the intestines
  • Trauma to any portion of the upper GI tract
  • Overgrown veins or varices in the esophagus or stomach

Reddish or maroon colored stools are usually caused by:

  • Hemorrhoids
  • Anal fissures
  • Bowel ischemia
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Colon polyps
  • Diverticulosis, in which abnormal pouches form in the colon
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis
  • Bacterial infection in the intestine
  • Tumors in the small bowel
  • Trauma in the lower GI tract
  • Abnormal blood vessels
  • Extra pressure during bowel movements could cause a capillary to burst, resulting in bleeding

A small amount of blood in the stools of children is usually not serious and is most probably a result of constipation or a milk allergy. However, it is still necessary to consult your doctor if only to rule out a more serious cause.

After checking the entire medical history and ruling out diet as a cause of abnormal stools, your doctor may call for certain tests to aid in his or her diagnosis. Once a cause for the bleeding has been established, a line of treatment will be decided upon. A remedy for black stools may require nothing more than medication to reduce stomach acids, while serious bleeding may call for emergency treatment. These may include blood transfusions, replacement of fluids intravenously and surgery to stop persistent bleeding. Some cases may require interventional radiography embolization which is a procedure to block blood vessels that are bleeding.

Do not ignore black or tarry stools. You should consult your doctor immediately to establish a cause and commence treatment if required.



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