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Stools - pale or clay-colored

Stools that are pale, clay, or putty-colored may be due to problems in the biliary system (the drainage system of the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas).

Considerations

The liver releases bile salts into the stool, giving it a normal brown color. You may have clay-colored stools if you have a liver infection that reduces bile production, or if the flow of bile out of the liver is blocked.

Yellow skin (jaundice) often occurs with clay-colored stools due to the buildup of bile chemicals in the body.

Common Causes

Possible causes for clay-colored stools include:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Biliary cirrhosis
  • Cancer or noncancerous (benign) tumors of the liver or biliary system
  • Cysts of the bile ducts
  • Gallstones
  • Medications
  • Narrowings (strictures) of the bile ducts
  • Sclerosing cholangitis
  • Structural problems in the biliary system that are present from birth (congenital)
  • Viral hepatitis

There may be other causes not listed here.

Call your health care provider if

Call your health care provider if your stools are not the normal brown color.

What to expect at your health care provider's office

The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms. Questions may include:

  • When did the symptom first occur?
  • Is every stool discolored?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

Tests that may be done include:

References

Berk P, Korenblat K. Approach to the patient with jaundice or abnormal liver test results. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier;2011:chap 149.

Lidofsky SD. Jaundice. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Sleisenger MH, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 20.

Updated: 9/2/2012

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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