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Stools - pale or clay-colored

Stools that are pale, clay, or putty-colored may be due to problems in the biliary system (the drainage system of the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas).

Considerations

The liver releases bile salts into the stool, giving it a normal brown color. You may have clay-colored stools if you have a liver infection that reduces bile production, or if the flow of bile out of the liver is blocked.

Yellow skin (jaundice) often occurs with clay-colored stools, due to the buildup of bile chemicals in the body.

Causes

Possible causes for clay-colored stools include:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Biliary cirrhosis
  • Cancer or noncancerous (benign) tumors of the liver, biliary system, or pancreas
  • Cysts of the bile ducts
  • Gallstones
  • Medications
  • Narrowings (strictures) of the bile ducts
  • Sclerosing cholangitis
  • Structural problems in the biliary system that are present from birth (congenital)
  • Viral hepatitis

There may be other causes not listed here.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if your stools are not the normal brown color.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms. Questions may include:

  • When did the symptom first occur?
  • Is every stool discolored?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

Tests that may be done include:

References

Berk P, Korenblat K. Approach to the patient with jaundice or abnormal liver test results. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 149.

Lidofsky SD. Jaundice. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Sleisenger MH, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 20.

Update Date: 8/11/2014

Updated by: Jenifer K. Lehrer, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Frankford-Torresdale Hospital, Aria Health System, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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