Bowel habits vary between people, and can change with time. Not all changes indicate disease, but some should be discussed with a doctor.
Anything from several times in a day to a few times per week can be normal.
Stools should be soft, sausage-shaped and easy to pass.
Constipation (hard, dry stools that you strain to pass) can be caused by insufficient fibre or water in the diet, changed routine or lack of exercise – in which cases lifestyle changes can help. It can also be associated with pregnancy or age. Try allowing more time for motions – don’t rush or strain. If you think you need laxatives, ask a health professional first.
Diarrhoea (loose or frequent bowel motions) can be caused by infection, stress or intolerance to gluten, lactose, fructose, etc. Food intolerances can be difficult to diagnose, so consult a professional. If you have a lot of diarrhoea, take lightly sugared drinks (e.g. diluted fruit juice) or electrolyte solutions to prevent dehydration. Avoid high-fat and high-fibre foods, coffee, milk and alcohol. If diarrhoea persists for more than 2-3 days or is accompanied by severe pain, blood in stools or high fever (especially if you’re overseas, or have been recently), seek medical attention.
1 in 20 people experience bowel leakage or pass wind when they don’t mean to. While it is more common in older people, poor bowel control can also affect younger people – e.g. if childbirth damages a woman’s pelvic floor. It won’t go away on its own, but you don’t have to put up with it – A continence nurse or physiotherapist can prescribe effective treatments.
Stools are almost always brown. Some pigments in foods (e.g. beetroot) can affect the colour; some foods can’t be broken down by our guts and are excreted whole (e.g. corn). Very dark or black stools may indicate bleeding, which could possibly be caused by bowel cancer, so see a health professional.
Blood smears on toilet paper are usually caused by haemorrhoids or anal fissures, and may be a sign that you’re constipated and straining too hard, but bleeding could also be due to an internal problem such as bowel cancer, so tell a doctor.
It’s normal for stools to smell, but if the smell suddenly becomes more offensive you may have an infection – Get tested at a health centre.
For more info, see www.healthforwomen.org.au/health-issues/318-bladder-and-bowel-health
Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health. Visit the website www.jeanhailes.org.au or call 1800 JEAN HAILES (532 642)