Changes in your bowel habits can provide clues about what’s happening inside your digestive system. Changes include differences in your poop’s color and consistency, how often you’re pooping and how much control you have over your bowel movements. Most changes aren’t cause for concern, but others may be signs of a condition your healthcare provider needs to diagnose and treat.
A change in bowel habits is any departure from what counts as normal when it comes to how your stools look or how often you have a bowel movement (poop). Slight changes usually aren’t a big deal. But major changes may signal that you need to adjust some parts of your lifestyle to live healthier. Differences can provide clues about what’s happening inside your body, like a health condition a healthcare provider should know about and treat.
The most common changes usually involve stool color, consistency, frequency and how much control you have over when you go to the bathroom.
Stool color varies, but it’s typically some shade of brown, depending on the foods you eat. A temporary color change from brown is likely harmless and diet-related. Small amounts of bright red in your stool usually mean rectal bleeding, which may or may not be serious, depending on the cause. Unusual color changes that don’t clear up (like deep red, black and tarry, clay-colored or pale stools) are signs you should see a provider.
Stools should be solid, soft and pass easily. Hard, dry stools that are tough to pass are a sign of constipation. Loose, watery stools are a sign of diarrhea. Both constipation and diarrhea are common and usually clear up within a few days. Constipation or diarrhea that lasts longer than two weeks isn’t normal. It’s time to see a provider at that point.
The normal length of time between bowel movements varies from person to person. Some people have bowel movements several times a day. Others only go once or twice a week. A general rule is that going longer than three days without pooping is too long. After three days, stool becomes harder and more difficult to pass. You may need to take steps to spur your gut into action so you can poop.
You should be able to control the muscles in your gut that allow you to poop or hold it. Loss or lack of control is called fecal (bowel) incontinence. It’s more common as you age. It’s important to see a provider if you lose control over your bowel.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
The most common cause is one you can control — your lifestyle. Eating too few of the foods that keep your digestive tract moving (like high-fiber foods) can affect your stools. Lack of exercise, a sudden increase in exercise intensity, not getting enough water and stress are also common causes. Bathroom visits usually return to normal once you change your habits or adapt to a routine (like a new exercise regimen).
Medications are also a key culprit. Many over-the-counter and prescription medications have side effects, like diarrhea and constipation. Stools usually return to normal once you stop taking the medicine.
Multiple conditions can cause changes in your bowel habits and stools, including:
Treatment depends on what’s causing the changes in your bowel habits. Treatment may be as straightforward as a course of antibiotics if you’ve got a bacterial infection or as complex as surgery if the issue is more serious.
If something in your routine is causing the change, you can make some lifestyle modifications. Many of these solutions can help you prevent unpleasant bowel changes in the first place:
You may need a stool softener or laxative if you have constipation and lifestyle changes aren’t helping.
It can be tricky knowing when a change is something you should wait out at home, when it’s cause for you to call your provider and when it’s an emergency. Most changes get better eventually, either on their own or with lifestyle changes, but there are important exceptions.
Contact your healthcare provider if you have:
Seek emergency care if you have:
They do. You’re more likely to experience constipation as you grow older. The likelihood of developing fecal incontinence, or struggling to control your bowels, increases after age 65. Muscles that help you control bowel movements can weaken as you age.
For some people, they do. Up to 39% of pregnant people experience constipation during pregnancy. It’s most common during the third trimester when the fetus is heaviest and places the most pressure on your bowels.
They can. And they can change in the period before menopause (perimenopause), too. In these stages, hormone levels shift. These hormone changes can affect various body systems, including your digestive system. Changes in your bowel habits may be related to these changes.
Still, don’t assume that alarming or unpleasant changes are “just hormones.” See a healthcare provider to be sure.
When it comes to bowel movements (pooping), everyone’s different. What your poop looks like and how often you go may differ from someone else, yet you both may be perfectly healthy. This is why noting changes in your own bowel habits is so important. Understanding what counts as normal for your poops can help you recognize changes that may signal that you need to make a lifestyle change or even contact your healthcare provider.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/21/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.