Digestive Disorders > Symptoms

Yellow Stool: What Do Yellow Bowel Movements Mean?

Dr. Sarah Toler, CNM, DNP

Dr. Sarah Toler, CNM, DNP

The digestive process begins when you eat and continues as your body pulls the nutrients it needs from food. The end product is a bowel movement that can vary in color, odor, size and consistency each time. These variations can provide clues about your body’s processes, organs, and overall health. Yellow bowel movements might give you a hint that something is going on with your diet or your body.

Why is stool usually brown?

Bowel movements are usually a shade of brown. The contents of a bowel movement are waste products from your body, including food residue, digestive organ secretions, bacteria, and byproducts of old red blood cells. These old red blood cells are broken down in spleen, liver, and bone marrow. These cells can look green, yellow, or brown as your body processes them. (Think of how a bruise transitions from brown, to green, to yellow as your body heals.) Bilirubin, a byproduct of red blood cells, ends up giving bowel movements the characteristic brown.

What causes yellow stool? Is yellowish stool normal?

Yellowish brown or yellow bowel movements may be alarming, but in many cases changes in color can be attributed to diet. Food that is high in yellow pigment or containing artificial food coloring can cause yellow bowel movements. Taking antibiotics can also make bowel movements yellow.

If you’ve eaten something or taken medication that affected the color of your bowel movement, you’ll notice your next bowel movement will look more normal. The discoloration should fully resolve in a day or two after discontinuing medication.

If yellow bowel movements are infrequent, there probably isn’t much cause for concern. If yellow bowel movements become the new normal or are accompanied by other symptoms, there may be an underlying pathology that can be addressed with treatment or medication. Yellowing of the skin and/or whites of the eyes (called jaundice), pain, or fever, accompanied by yellow stool should always be followed up by a healthcare provider.

Color Potential symptoms Possible causes Should you see a gastrointestinal care provider?
Yellow-brown / yellow-whitish Foods rich in yellow pigments or artificial yellow coloring; taking antibiotics Yes, if changes persist for several weeks or can’t be explained by food or medication.
Light yellow, gray, or pale Fatty stool (shiny, foul smelling), weight loss, abdominal pain Inability to digest or absorb fat, as with conditions affecting the small intestine: celiac disease, short bowel syndrome (occurs after surgical removal of a section of the intestine), giardiasis (a parasite infection), conditions affecting the pancreas or bile salts Yes.
Light yellow, clay-colored to white Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), dark urine, itching, abdominal pain Inability to process bilirubin from red blood cells. May be related to diseases of the biliary tract, the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, or the pancreas Yes.
Ocher yellow, yellowish green, yellow slime Diarrhea Abdominal influenza (gastroenteritis), other diarrheal diseases Most digestive tract infections will resolve without treatment. If you experience severe symptoms like fever, dizziness, or persistent diarrhea, seek care.

What diseases or conditions cause yellow stool?

Yellowish bowel movements can be caused by a variety of processes in the abdominal organs.

Most people experience abdominal or stomach pain from time to time, but when abdominal pain is accompanied by yellow bowel movements, this can indicate a bile drainage disorder.

Diseases of the liver, the bile ducts, or the pancreas can cause these symptoms:

  • Light, clay-colored stool
  • Dark urine
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Itching (pruritus)
  • Less common: Fatty stool (steatorrhea) / weight loss with fat malabsorption

Liver-related causes of yellow stool

Chronic liver diseases including alcoholic fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, viral, hepatitis, and other diseases impact liver function.

These diseases can impair bile production and delivery (excretion). In severe episodes, a person might experience fatigue, flu symptoms, and epigastric pain.

Biliary tract-related causes of yellow stool

Gallstones are hard, stone-like pieces of cholesterol and bilirubin that form in your gallbladder and can clog bile ducts.

Around 10 to 15 percent of adults in the United States have gallstones, although many people with gallstones don’t experience symptoms. When gallstones block the bile ducts, people can experience severe abdominal pain on their right side. The bile duct blockage might lead to a build-up of bile in the gallbladder. The gallbladder and bile ducts can become inflamed. This is called cholecystitis and cholangitis.

During acute episodes, in addition to upper abdominal pain, fever, and chills can occur. Jaundice, dark urine and light or fatty stool may occur under some circumstances.

Other conditions that can affect the biliary tract include non-bacterial inflammation with autoimmune diseases, like primary biliary cholangitis (PBC) or primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). About 75 percent of people with PSC also have ulcerative colitis and 13 percent have Crohn's disease. Symptoms are often absent, but persistent itching may occur.

Pancreas-related causes of yellow stool

Diseases of the pancreas, like the chronic inflammation of the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis), can lead to build up of bile, e.g. because of a bile duct compression or narrowing. This can be related to excessive alcohol consumption, autoimmune disorders, too much calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia). The main symptom is recurrent, belt-shaped upper abdominal pain. Other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, weight loss, jaundice, light and fatty stool, and jaundice may occur under some circumstances. This happens because the pancreas is damaged and can no longer produce the fat-splitting enzyme lipase.

Tumors that might cause yellow stool

Tumors that narrow the bile ducts are usually painless. Masses can occur in the bile ducts inside and outside the liver, the liver, and the pancreas. Painless jaundice may be a warning sign. Weight loss, night sweats, and unexplained fever can also occur.

What is fatty stool (steatorrhea)?

Bile works by digesting fat in the intestine. If the body cannot digest or absorb enough fats, for example—due to a lack of bile salts or of the enzyme lipase—it excretes them instead in stool. This might manifest as a greasy, shiny bowel movement with a distinct, pungent smell. Fatty bowel movements often float in the toilet. If this problem persists for an extended period of time, it may lead to weight loss.

In case of fatty stools, the underlying condition should be treated. Dietary intake of fat-soluble vitamins can be increased by taking nutritional supplements.The absorption of fats is completed in the last part of the small intestine. Bowel diseases like celiac disease can lead to indigestion with fatty stool, weight loss, and abdominal pain.

Yellow diarrhea

A particularly common cause of abdominal pain are infections of the gastrointestinal tract, which cause pulpy, liquid bowel movements. Here, diarrhea occurs when the brown stool is thinned and can appear lighter in color.

There may also be mucus in the stool. Mucus acts as lubricant and keeps the intestinal inner lining moist. A small amount in bowel movements is normal. However, if you notice an increased amount or it is accompanied by abdominal pain, fever, or headache, seek evaluation from a primary care or gastroenterology provider.

Infants and yellow stool

Breastfed infants will have yellow, crumbly bowel movements. This is normal for infants. Bowel movement color should remain consistently yellow until a baby begins eating table foods. Any changes in bowel movement color in an exclusively breastfed infant should be followed up with a pediatric care provider.

What to do if you have yellow stool

Occasional yellow bowel movements are likely to be caused by diet. If yellow bowel movements become frequent, there may be an underlying condition responsible. A primary care provider or gastroenterologist can evaluate your symptoms and run lab tests to identify the cause of yellow bowel movements. If yellow bowel movements are accompanied by pain, fever, or jaundice, seek health care promptly.

Behrends, J., Bischofberger, J., Deutzmann, R. and Ehmke, H. (2010). Physiologie. Thieme. https://www.thieme-connect.de/products/ebooks/book/10.1055/b-002-23567

Herold, G. (2011). Innere Medizin 2011. Cologne: Selbstverl.

Dr. Sarah Toler, CNM, DNP

Dr. Sarah Toler, CNM, DNP

Sarah Toler is a Certified Nurse Midwife, Doctor of Nursing Practice, and science writer. She focuses on improving women's health and access to health care by working with digital health platforms. Her area of expertise is mental health, particularly the physical manifestations of stress and anxiety.

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