You probably don’t call up your doctor after every bout of constipation and diarrhea, but it’s understandable that you’d be concerned if you start experiencing poop problems on the regular.
While changes in your bowel movements could simply be due to switching up your diet or catching an intestinal bug, they can also be a sign of a more serious condition that needs treatment. “Any change in bowel habits needs to be addressed with a doctor, especially those that occur without changes in diet or in connection with other issues,” Bruce Yacyshyn, M.D., a professor in the Division of Digestive Diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells SELF.
You’re probably not crazy about the idea of talking poop with your doctor, but—trust us—they've heard it all before. Here are a few things those doctors want to hear about (though this is by no means an exhaustive list):
1. You have diarrhea with pain.
Sure, diarrhea is never going to feel good, but if you consistently have it with stomach cramping and abdominal pain, it could be a sign of IBS-D, a form of irritable bowel syndrome that causes chronic or recurrent diarrhea. That pain is a big indicator that you might have IBS, Kyle Staller, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General, tells SELF. “People tend to throw around the term ‘IBS’ casually, but pain associated with a change in bowel movements is the criteria,” he says. Naturally, diarrhea happens sometimes, but Dr. Staller says symptoms of IBS-D typically crop up at least one day a week over a series of three months.
Consistent pain with diarrhea can also be indicative of an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Crohn's disease affects the lining of the digestive tract while ulcerative colitis impacts the innermost lining of your colon and rectum, causing ulcers to form in your digestive tract. These inflammatory bowel diseases share many of the same symptoms, some of which may also overlap with IBS. So rather than attempt to self diagnose, make an appointment with your doctor when you're experiencing symptoms like recurring painful diarrhea.
2. You have constipation with pain and bloating.
Again, this could be a sign of IBD or a specific type of IBS characterized by constipation, called IBS-C. IBS-C can be triggered by several factors, including hormonal changes, certain foods, or stress, Rudolph Bedford, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF. But regular constipation and pain are the key components that should send you to a specialist.
3. You’re alternating between painful constipation and diarrhea.
Having IBS doesn't necessarily mean you'll have diarrhea or constipation—some people can alternatively experience both in a form of the condition known as IBS-M (the M stands for “mixed”). Like IBS-D and IBS-C, patients with IBS-M have pain when they experience diarrhea or constipation, Dr. Staller says. And it happens more than once or twice. “Typically it’s long-term,” says Dr. Bedford. “This has been going on for weeks, if not months.”
4. There’s blood or mucus in your poop.
Blood in your stool or rectal bleeding are typically indicative of ulcerative colitis, while mucus in the stool could be a sign of IBS. However, these could also be a sign of other bowel conditions, like Crohn's disease. While some people can experience mild cases of the ulcerative colitis, it can be debilitating or even lead to life-threatening complications, according to the Mayo Clinic. Regardless, noting blood in your stool is always something to bring up to your doctor. And keep in mind that blood in the stool can present as red or black, depending on where it's coming from.
5. You've been getting a fever and cramping with diarrhea.
A fever with diarrhea that happens over a short period of time can be the sign of a viral condition, like gastroenteritis. But if it’s happening regularly, it could be indicative of Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can overlap with irritable bowel syndrome, Dr. Yacyshyn says. “But Crohn’s disease patients tend to have fevers, chills, [and] abdominal pain that’s more associated with meals,” he says. Other common signs of Crohn's disease include fatigue, blood in the stool, and reduced appetite or weight loss, though the symptoms of gut disease can vary widely from person to person.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Some of these conditions can get worse with time, making it especially important that you act sooner rather than later. While you may feel weird talking poop with your doctor, it’s important to remember that you can’t get help until you actually speak up about your symptoms.