What is rectal bleeding?

Looking down into a toilet and seeing blood can be alarming. Your mind might go to many places as alarm bells ring that something is wrong. This is often rectal bleeding. A symptom of many different medical conditions, rectal bleeding can vary from being mild to being a sign of a serious condition like colorectal cancer. If you’re experiencing rectal bleeding, you might see blood in a few different ways — on your toilet paper as you wipe, in the water of the toilet bowl or in your poop. It can be different colors, ranging from bright red to a dark maroon to black.

The color of blood you see can actually indicate where the bleeding might be coming from.

  • Bright red blood usually means bleeding that’s low in your colon or rectum.
  • Dark red or maroon blood can mean that you have bleeding higher in the colon or in the small bowel.
  • Melena (dark and tar-like stool) often points to bleeding in the stomach, such as bleeding from ulcers.

Sometimes, rectal bleeding isn’t visible to the naked eye and can only be seen through a microscope. This type of bleeding is usually found during a lab test of a stool sample.

Is rectal bleeding serious?

In some cases, rectal bleeding can be a minor symptom of a condition that can be easily treated. Hemorrhoids, for example, can cause you to experience rectal bleeding. This usually doesn’t last long and hemorrhoids are often easy to treat. However, rectal bleeding can sometimes be a sign of a serious condition like colorectal cancer. It’s important to keep track of any bleeding you are experiencing. If it’s heavy, frequent or causing you to worry, call your healthcare provider to check it out.

How does rectal bleeding appear?

You might see or experience rectal bleeding in a few different ways, including:

  • Seeing blood on your toilet paper when you wipe.
  • Seeing blood in the bowl of the toilet when you are using the bathroom — the water in the bowl might look like it’s been dyed red.
  • Noticing dark red, black or tarry poop while you are having a bowel movement.

Rectal bleeding can be bright red or darker in color. You can also have rectal bleeding without being able to see it. This can happen when you have very small amounts of blood in your stool — called occult bleeding.

How would my stool look if I had rectal bleeding?

When you have blood in your stool it can look a few different ways. You may have bright red streaks of blood on your poop or you could see blood mixed in with it. Stool could also look very dark, almost black, and tarry.

Sometimes, you can have blood in your stool that’s not visible. This is called occult bleeding. This can be a sign of bleeding inside your digestive tract. It can also signal a more serious condition like an inflammation disease in your intestines or cancer. Occult bleeding is usually found during lab tests that look at a sample of your poop to check for small amounts of blood. This is called a fecal occult blood test and it can be used as a way to screen for possible colorectal cancer. Your healthcare provider might recommend this if you have a family history of colorectal cancer.

One thing to keep in mind when you see an unusual color in your poop is what you ate. There are certain foods that can change the color of your stool and make it look red or even black. This is often mistaken for blood in your stool.

What are the symptoms of rectal bleeding?

The symptoms of rectal bleeding can vary depending on what is causing the bleeding. Most causes of rectal bleeding are treatable and not serious. In some cases, rectal bleeding can be a symptom of a serious disease, such as colorectal cancer. Because it can be hard to know the cause of your rectal bleeding at home, it’s usually a good idea to reach out to your healthcare provider if you have rectal bleeding.

Some symptoms you might have with rectal bleeding can include:

  • Feeling rectal pain and/or pressure.
  • Seeing bright red blood in or on your stool, underwear, toilet paper or in the toilet bowl.
  • Having stool that’s red, maroon or black in color.
  • Having stool that has a tar-like appearance.
  • Experiencing mental confusion.
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
  • Fainting.

In some very severe cases, rectal bleeding can lead to shock. If you experience any symptoms of shock, call 911 right away and get help. The symptoms of shock can include:

  • Experiencing a sudden drop in your blood pressure.
  • Having a fast heart rate.
  • Not being able to urinate.
  • Slipping into unconsciousness.

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