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Let's Talk About Stool Samples

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Stool tests, what a delightful topic! When you have gastrointestinal issues, you learn very quickly you’re going to have to suspend all embarrassment surrounding your digestive system.

Discussing bowel movements, bloating and gas become as casual as chatting about the weather, and you spend far too much time analyzing the contents of your toilet. (Is this more of a two or a three on the Bristol stool chart?)

Charming, I know.

I’m a shy person (oversharing information about my digestive issues on the internet aside), so you can imagine my initial horror when doctors first asked me: “Describe your bowel movements,””Would you describe the gas as ‘foul’ smelling?”‘When was your last period?” and “How is your sex drive?” Did I mention that my mother comes to my doctor’s appointments with me?

Eventually I got used to the questions. It’s important to answer honestly and comprehensively so that your doctor can help you. This is their job – they are not going to be grossed out or judge you based on your answers.

This weekend, I had to repeat a stool test that I took about 6 months ago to check if a parasite in my gut had cleared. Honestly, I’ve been dreading it, as I found it extremely stressful last time. I have anxiety and my mind has a tendency to find 50 possible ways a situation can go wrong. My reaction was to Google the test and search for answers. Surely other people have had similar questions, I thought.

Something that stood out to me when I first Googled stool samples is how difficult it was to find information regarding “how to take a stool test” beyond the official instructions the test company makes. Basically, a lot of people were taking the tests, but nobody was talking about it.

Either that or nobody else seems to be as stressed about it as I’ve been. To spare my dignity lets go with option one – no one is discussing it. That is is why I’ve written this post – to try to help others with similar questions.

Here are some of the problems that I worried about – and how I addressed them:

1) What If the Collection Tray Falls Into the Toilet?

To collect your sample, the test kit (if it is similar to the one I took) comes with a cardboard “collecting tray” that you assemble. It looks like those cardboard boxes that you get chips (U.K.) or fries (U.S.) in at festivals. Sorry if I’ve ruined that for you now. You place the container in the toilet and it catches your business, then you lift it out and take the sample from that. No part of the stool can touch the toilet water. Now I’m sure the lovely people that created the test know what they’re doing, but the box looked very flimsy to me. I was worried that it would flip over and the sample would fall in or touch the water.

For once, my anxiety held true and the container flipped over the first day I tried it. I immediately burst into tears, and my poor mother had to spend about ten minutes calming me down. It was a high anxiety day and that was the last overwhelming straw.

Our solution? I got a tupperware container, put it in the toilet bowl and then put the cardboard box on top. The tupperware lodged into the toilet perfectly, making it impossible for anything to happen to the cardboard box. Needless to say, after the third day I immediately threw out the tupperware.

2) What If I Can’t Go on a Given Day?

I had to give stool samples from three consecutive bowel movements, and the lab had to receive them by overnight delivery on Friday. Understandably, that put some pressure on me. What if I didn’t go one of the days and missed the delivery deadline? Overnight collections had to be called in by 10 A.M. on that day of collection, adding some additional time sensitivity. Also, in typical fashion, the moment you have to do something is the moment it all stops. Clearly my digestion has a slight case of performance anxiety, which is probably something anyone with constipation can relate to.

I started the first sample on a Friday, which ideally meant I would collect them on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and mail them on Monday. That way if I missed a day (or the sample fell into the toilet and made me have a minor nervous breakdown) I still had another day or so to get the sample to the lab before Friday.

I’m not able to work at the moment, but for those who do – the weekend is probably an ideal time to take samples. If you take the test over the weekend, you don’t have to sneak stool collection kits into your work bathroom. Something I imagine some people might find slightly awkward.

3) What If It’s Super Gross?

Let’s be honest, digging through your feces is never going to be pleasant. If there’s something wrong in your gut, it’s better to grit your teeth and deal with the brief unpleasantness of doing the test so you can find out if there is a problem and treat it. Put on the gloves they provide, hold your breath, get it done and wash your hands with industrial strength soap.

A Few Final Tips

In addition to points one through three, I’ve found it helpful to:

  • Have a pen close by so you can accurately fill out the time on the label.
  • Unscrew the lid of the collection tube before you begin. They can be hard to unscrew, especially one-handed.
  • If you’re self conscious about taking the test, have a small disposable bag ready so that you can dispose of the collecting tray and gloves in a sanitary and discreet way.

Remember: You’re not the first person to do this test and you won’t be the last. Don’t be ashamed, a lot of people have gut problems these days. The important thing is to see a qualified medical professional and get your gut checked out. Yes, discussing your digestion (and all of it’s functions) can be embarrassing, but medical professionals are used to it and your health is far more important.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get medical advice when you need it – just maybe not at the dinner table.

Thinkstock photo via Irina_Strelnikova.

Originally published: February 19, 2017
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