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What is Rectal Bleeding? A Comprehensive Guide

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Rectal Bleeding: Common Causes, Symptoms, and When to Seek Help

Having to live with any medical condition that causes rectal bleeding can make you feel afraid and alone. People often struggle in silence; they may be uncomfortable speaking about it to friends or family. However, there is no shame in rectal bleeding.

If you are pooping blood, whether it’s in the form of blood in your stool or on your toilet paper, you need to contact your doctor. This could indicate internal bleeding or that you’re experiencing other serious ailments that require an immediate diagnosis.

This guide will cover the causes of rectal bleeding, its symptoms, and how to treat it.

What Is Rectal Bleeding?

Rectal bleeding, also known as hematochezia, is a frequently encountered ailment experienced by many. It shows up when there is red blood in the stool after you have just had a bowel movement.

Rectal bleeding is often caused by a condition or disease from the lower gastronomical tract, otherwise known as your colon and rectal region.

The problem with diagnosing rectal bleeding is that less than half of the people living with the condition seek professional medical treatment.

The Seriousness of Rectal Bleeding

In some cases of rectal bleeding, the cause can be minor. Minor rectal bleeding can be caused by conditions like hemorrhoids and constipation, which are often easy to treat.

Rectal bleeding may also be a sign of a much more severe condition like Crohn’s disease or colon cancer. If you are experiencing any rectal bleeding, keeping a record of any bleeding you are having is critical. If the bleeding is frequent or heavy, you must contact your healthcare provider for an exam. Even though it may be embarrassing, the symptoms you’re experiencing could signify a disease.

You may wonder when to worry about blood in the stool. It should be an immediate concern, as any form of internal bleeding must be taken seriously.

What do the different colors of blood mean?

The different colors of blood in stool can indicate various conditions. The colors can point to where the bleeding is occurring. The darker the blood, the further up the digestive tract the bleeding is. Here are some of the different colors you might encounter:

  • Bright red blood is usually an indicator that you are bleeding from your lower gastronomical tract, so the colon and rectum.
  • Dark red blood indicates that you are bleeding from your higher gastronomical tract (the higher part of the colon and the small bowel).
  • Melena, dark or tar color, is a sign that you may be bleeding from your stomach. This could signal ulcers have formed there.

The blood may also be invisible to the naked human eye and is only visible through a microscope. This type of bleeding is usually found after a stool sample has been taken to the lab and has been tested. This type of bleeding is called an occult bleed.

How does a stool look after rectal bleeding?

As previously noted, when you find blood in your stool, it can look different depending on where you are bleeding from. It can range from bright red to black and tarry. The blood can be streaked or mixed into the stool.

If you experience an occult bleed in your stool, you will not see it, and you will need to have a fecal occult blood test done to verify that you have one. Occult bleeds can be a sign that you are bleeding from your digestive tract and can be a sign of cancer or inflammation disease in the intestines.

Additionally, one thing to remember is that your stool color may change or look red or black depending on the foods you eat. It can often be misinterpreted as blood in a stool.

Symptoms of Rectal Bleeding

Most rectal bleeds are treatable and not too serious. However, rectal bleeding can be a symptom of a more serious ailment, such as anal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease.

As it is hard to diagnose the cause of rectal bleeding from home or by yourself, it is vital to contact a healthcare provider or doctor for a full diagnosis. Here are some symptoms you may experience if you have a rectal bleed:

  • Feeling pain or pressure from your rectum and your lower abdomen.
  • Have bright red blood that is visible in your stool, your underwear, toilet paper, and the toilet bowl.
  • The stool is the color of tar, dark red, maroon, or black.
  • Experiencing mental confusion or brain fog.
  • Feeling lightheaded and dizzy.
  • Fainting or collapsing.

In severe cases of rectal bleeding, you may end up going into shock from the blood loss. If you end up going into shock, it’s imperative to call 911 and get an ambulance for help immediately. The symptoms of going into shock by rectal bleeding are:

  • You experience a sudden drop in your blood pressure. This is a huge indicator of shock.
  • Your heart rate is beating fast or abnormally high.
  • Inability to urinate.
  • You slip in and out of consciousness. This can lead to serious injuries if you fall or hurt yourself.

Causes of Rectal Bleeding

There are around 19 or more known causes of anal bleeding, with four of the conditions being the common causes and 15 being uncommon causes. Below is a list of the known causes of rectal bleeding and what each condition is.

The Four Common Causes of Bleeding

  • Anal Fissure: Anal fissures are small tears found in the anal canal lining. They are caused by constipation, passing a hard stool, and straining. Anal fissures cause muscle pain and bleeding while moving your bowels. It is also common to see a small lump of skin near the anal fissure.
  • Hemorrhoids: Almost three out of four adults will experience hemorrhoids once in their lifetime. Hemorrhoids are swollen veins that develop in your anus or your lower rectum. There are three types of hemorrhoids; external, internal, and thrombosed. Often the causes are unknown.
  • Hard Stools: Hard stools can cause strain on your lower rectum and anus, leading to bleeding or cuts forming. Drinking the correct amount of water for your daily intake is essential as it can help soften the stools.
  • Constipation: Constipation is described when you have less than three weekly bowel movements. One of the most common causes of constipation is not eating enough fiber-based foods or drinking enough fluids. Constipation can persist for several weeks if untreated and can be painful. Occasional constipation is quite common, with some people having chronic constipation.

15 Uncommon Causes of Rectal Bleeding

  • Anal Cancer: Anal cancer is an uncommon cancer form that occurs in the anal canal. The anal canal is a short tube located at the end of the rectum. Signs of anal cancer are bleeding from the rectum, itching, and pain in the anal area. Another symptom of anal cancer is a mass or growth in the anal canal.
  • Angiodysplasia: Angiodysplasia is the most common form of vascular lesion inside the gastrointestinal tract. The condition may also be asymptomatic, or it may cause bleeding. The walls of the vessel are thin, weak, and have no smooth muscle.
  • Colon Cancer: Colon cancer begins in the colon, otherwise known as the large intestine. This type of cancer usually affects older adults, but can affect all ages. Colon cancer forms from little polyps inside the colon. Over time, these polyps can turn into cancer. A symptom of colon cancer is bright red blood in the stool.
  • Colon Polyps: Colon polyps are tiny clusters of small bumps that form in the lining of the colon. Most colon polyps are considered harmless, but some may form colon cancer. Symptoms of colon polyps are rectal bleeding, change in the color of your stools, change in bowel movement habits, and iron deficiency anemia.
  • Crohn’s Disease: One of the forms of inflammatory bowel disease causing swelling of the tissues in the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, malnutrition, and weight loss. Crohn’s disease is both painful and debilitating, which may lead to life-threatening issues and complications. There is no known no cure for Crohn’s disease, but there are medications that can help manage it.
  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea is when your stool is loose and watery, with more frequent bowel movements than usual. It can appear on its own or show up in the form of other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and abdominal pain. If diarrhea lasts beyond a few days to a few weeks, it usually indicates another issue.
  • Diverticulosis: Diverticula are small, building pockets or pouches that form in the lining of the digestive system. Diverticula are often found in the colon and commonly found in people over 40, but they don’t cause problems for most people. Signs of diverticulosis are constant pain in the lower left side of the body, nausea and vomiting, fever, constipation, and abdominal tenderness.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Inflammatory bowel disease, also known as IBD, is a term that describes a long-term or chronic disorder that inflames the tissues of the digestive tract. IBD can be a mild condition for some people but a debilitating one for others. Signs of IBD can include diarrhea, fatigue, abdominal pain and cramps, blood in your stool, reduced appetite, and unintentional weight loss.
  • Ischemic Colitis: Ischemic colitis happens when the blood flow to the large intestine, colon, is temporarily reduced. The reduced blood flow may be caused by the blood vessels that supply the colon narrowing in size. Symptoms of ischemic colitis are blood in the poop, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, an urgency to move your bowels, and diarrhea.
  • Proctitis: Proctitis is the inflammation of the lining of the rectum. Proctitis is a common condition for people who  have inflammatory bowel disease. Sexually transmitted diseases are also a cause of proctitis. This condition can be caused by radiation from cancer treatments. Some symptoms of proctitis are painful bowel movements, rectal pain, passing mucus from your rectum, and rectal bleeding.
  • Pseudomembranous Colitis: Pseudomembranous colitis is a condition often related to hospital stays or antibiotic treatment, and the infection is most common in patients over the age of 65. Pseudomembranous colitis is the inflammation of the colon caused by an overgrowth of the bacterium Clostridioides difficile. Some symptoms are dehydration, watery diarrhea, fever, and nausea.
  • Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy is often used to treat cancer conditions. The treatment uses beams of intense energy to kill cancers. The energy beams are often an X-ray type, but protons and other forms of energy are known to be used. As the beam of energy can kill off cancer cells, it may also kill off healthy cells. The treatment is used to kill noncancerous tumors, otherwise known as benign ones.
  • Rectal Cancer: This type of cancer starts in your rectum and can end at the final segment of the colon. Colon cancer and rectal cancer are similar, but the treatments differ drastically. As the rectum is more tightly packed, it makes the surgery to remove any cancer complex. Symptoms of rectal cancer are bowel movement changes, abdominal pain, blood in your stools, weakness, plus fatigue.
  • Solitary Rectal Ulcer Syndrome: Solitary rectal ulcer syndrome is a poorly understood condition that is rare and often affects people with chronic constipation. Ulcers form in the rectum causing pain and rectal bleeding. The syndrome can be managed by changing diets and drinking more fluids, but surgery may be the only solution in severe cases.
  • Ulcerative Colitis: Ulcerative colitis is the second form of inflammatory bowel syndrome, affecting the innermost lining of the colon and the rectum. The symptoms develop over time, including rectal bleeding, diarrhea, an urgency to have a bowel movement, and rectal pain. Ulcerative colitis can be a draining disorder and even life-threatening.

If you show signs of any of these conditions, you must contact your local doctor or visit the nearest hospital/clinic for a proper diagnosis.

What to Do if You Suspect You Have Rectal Bleeding

To begin, stay calm and try to focus. If it is a lot of blood and you are in shock, such as feeling dizzy or faint, call 911 to seek medical help. Signs that you need immediate medical attention include low urine input, cold, clammy hands, nausea, confusion, and blurred vision.

Getting medical attention is imperative if the rectal bleeding is continuous/heavy and you have severe abdominal pain or cramping.

Whether the bleeding is minor or lasts a few days, book a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible to have a diagnosis. It could be a small or common ailment that can easily be treated if you seek professional medical treatment.

What Questions to Ask the Doctor

During a doctor’s appointment or when seeking medical treatment, it is essential to ask the right questions. You may feel embarrassed asking them, but to medical professionals, these questions are normal and will help treat your rectal bleeding properly.

Also, giving all information with enough description can help identify any causes of rectal bleeding, leading to a faster and better treatment.

Rectal Bleeding Treatments

It is vital to understand why you’re bleeding before treatment, as it can be a symptom of various conditions. This will ensure you’re treating the root cause.

The Questions and Tests You May Take

There are several ways to treat rectal bleeding; you just need to have some tests to determine if the healthcare provider can treat the bleeding. The medical staff will also ask you questions about your specific condition. Some of the questions they may ask are:

  • When did the rectal bleeding start?
  • What have you eaten in the last couple of days before the rectal bleeding?
  • How frequent are your bowel movements?
  • Are you constipated?
  • Have you been straining during bowel movements?
  • Do you have any pain in your rectum during the bleeding?
  • Can you see blood in your stool, toilet bowl, and toilet paper?
  • What color is the blood?
  • Do you have hemorrhoids?
  • Do you have inflammatory bowel syndrome?
  • Does your family have a history of colorectal cancer?

Healthcare providers ask these questions because it can narrow down the cause of rectal bleeding. Tests can also pinpoint these causes. The tests can include:

How to Treat Rectal Bleeding

The treatment of rectal bleeding is often linked to the cause. To stop the bleeding, you must fix or take care of the fundamental issue causing your rectal bleeding. Conditions like an anal fissure may go away over time or can be treated with ointments and creams.

Hemorrhoids are also a common cause of rectal bleeding. They can be treated by fixing any constipation issues, changing your diet, increasing your fluid intake, or having surgery to remove the hemorrhoids.

If the reasons you have rectal bleeds are more serious, like cancer or any IBD, your doctor will create a treatment plan to address any ailment. Your doctor may also recommend surgery to remove any tumors that may be growing.

Can Rectal Bleeding Go Away On Its Own?

Depending on the cause of the rectal bleeding, the bleeding may stop on its own. It is essential to keep track of any bleeding you may have, and if it continues, seek medical attention. If the bleeding goes away on its own, you should continue to keep track of any bleeding that may occur as a precaution.

Commonly Asked Questions

Is blood in stool a sign of cancer?

When there is blood in the stool, it can be a sign that you have some internal bleeding, either from cancer or any other ailment. If your family has a history of colorectal cancer, then it may be possible you can have cancer.

If you are showing signs of any type of cancer, like bowel movement irregularities, a growth, or a lump forming at your rectum, you need to contact your healthcare provider right away. Before you start worrying, go get diagnosed by a medical professional. The bleeding may be caused by something less serious.

Can certain foods mimic the look of blood in a stool?

Yes, certain foods containing red food dye can cause your stool to be reddish. Other foods like cranberries, tomatoes, and beetroots can also turn your stool red.

Some foods may even cause your stools to turn black. These foods include dark food dyes, blueberries, dark leafy vegetables, and black licorice.

Does rectal bleeding go away on its own?

Yes, rectal bleeding can go away on its own. However, it is still essential to reach out to a medical professional and advise them on what’s happening. If the rectal bleeding goes away on its own, it is either a food you ate that caused the bleeding by inflaming your intestines or a strain from moving your bowels.

What food and drinks should you eat to stop rectal bleeding?

An important thing to do if you have any rectal bleeding is to look at both your diet and the types of drinks you consume. You must drink up to eight to 10 glasses of water daily if you have a rectal bleed.

Additionally, adding more fiber to your diet can help soften your bowels, which can help stop the strain on the colon and rectal wall linings.

Get the Answers You Need from The Mighty

If you’re experiencing rectal bleeding, know that you’re not alone. The Mighty can help you get some of the answers you need from people sharing the same experience.

We know how challenging health diagnoses can be. The Mighty has 700+ health communities, each offering space to share, connect, and learn from so you can get the support you need.

Whether you’re seeking depression, Crohn’s disease, or rheumatoid arthritis support groups for your condition, there is a community for everyone. We also offer helpful, curated health articles on various health topics that can enhance your understanding of your condition.

Ready to join us? Explore The Mighty now!

Getty image by Ponomariova_Maria

Originally published: March 8, 2023
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