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The Scoop on Poop

WebMD helps you answer the most common and sometimes sensitive questions about bowel movements.

ABCs of Poop continued...

Size and shape are irrelevant, Aserkoff says, if what’s coming out is normal for you.

Odor: Bowel movements usually smell. But is it normal if your trips to the bathroom mean that the rest of the family has to avoid that part of the house for an hour or two?

The answer is yes. It’s normal, and probably a good sign that your gut is abundant with bacteria that is working hard to keep you healthy.

Your intestines are swarming with trillions upon trillions of bacteria that enhance digestive and metabolic processes. They are also the reason why poop smells -- a direct result of the bacterial activity in your GI tract. So although it's no bed of roses, it is normal for your bowel movements to stink.

Poop Problems

So what happens when your poop process gets out of whack? The first sign that your intestines aren’t up to par is a shift from your normal GI routine, and as a result, discomfort below the waist.

Constipation and Diarrhea 

Constipation is a concern when you normally have a bowel movement once or twice a day, and that changes -- maybe you haven’t gone in three days, or more.  However long it’s been, you now feel gassy, bloated, and generally uncomfortable. When you try to go, you have to push and strain, and what comes out is a whole lot of nothin’.

Constipation can have many causes. It might be that you’ve had a shift in your diet, such as a drop in fiber intake, or maybe because you’re not drinking enough water each day, or because your physical activity level has decreased, slowing your metabolic processes down, including digestion. Certain medications (such as narcotic pain medicines and iron supplements) can also cause constipation problems.

Although constipation causes one set of problems, diarrhea can also mean digestive disaster. Whether it’s caused by a meal that just didn’t sit right, or a harmful bacterium or virus, it's categorized by loose stool, and another hallmark of GI trouble -- discomfort.

“Diarrhea can be caused by any number of factors,” Aserkoff says. “But the problem with diarrhea, in addition to the obvious, is that it can cause other health problems, like dehydration, if you’re living with it for more than two or three days.”

Generally, you recoup from a bout of diarrhea or constipation in a day or two, Aserkoff says. If not, it’s probably worth a trip to the doctor for further GI troubleshooting. 

Blood in the Stool 

“One of the most significant warning signs when it comes to bowel movements is blood in the stool,” Esrailian says.

Blood in your stool could be a symptom of something as significant as cancer and warrants a call to your doctor right away -- even if you think it could be hemorrhoids, or tiny tears in the anal tissue, as a result of constipation and straining, he says. If you’re over 50, or if you have a family history of colorectal cancer, a colonoscopy is probably in order.

Other warning signs to watch for when your bowel movements have taken a turn for the worse are fever, abdominal pain, or dehydration -- any one of which could be tied to GI trouble, such as a virus, appendicitis, or food poisoning.

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