Mucus is a smooth, thick substance produced in many places throughout the body, including in the lining of the digestive tract. Mucus in the stool may be a normal variant, and it may cover segments of formed feces. However, it also can occur in patients with inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. Mucous that is also associated with blood and/or abdominal pain should not be ignored and requires medical attention. Mucous in stool can also be seen in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Mucus in stool can occur with a variety of intestinal infections that cause severe diarrhea. In more-serious conditions Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and even cancer mucus in stool may be bloody or accompanied by abdominal pain.
But you should talk to your doctor if you notice an increased amount of mucus in stool particularly if it begins happening regularly or if it’s accompanied by bleeding or a change in bowel habits.
The digestive tract normally produces some mucus to help digested food and waste slide through it. Abnormal amounts of mucus in the stool may be caused by a variety of conditions ranging from inflammation and infection to obstruction and cancer.
Digestive tract causes of mucus in stool
Mucus in stool may be caused by digestive tract conditions including:
- Anal fissures (tears or cracks) or fistulas (abnormal holes or tubes between organs or tissues)
- Bacterial gastrointestinal infection, such as Salmonella food poisoning, Campylobacter infection, or traveler’s diarrhea
- Cancer of the digestive tract
- Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
- Diverticulitis (inflammation of an abnormal pocket in the colon)
- Food allergies (allergic reaction to certain foods)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS; digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease)
- Lactose intolerance (an inability to digest lactose, the sugar in dairy products)
- Parasite infections such as Giardia infection
- Rectal ulcers
- Viral gastroenteritis (viral infection of the digestive tract, also called stomach flu or intestinal flu)
Serious or life-threatening causes of mucus in stool
In some cases, mucus in the stool may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
- Bowel obstruction
- Colonic volvulus (twisting of the colon)
- Intussusception (telescoping of the intestines into themselves, which can reduce blood supply, cause obstruction, and tissue death)
Mucus in stool may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.
Digestive tract symptoms that may occur along with mucus in stool
Mucus in the stool may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Abdominal swelling, distension or bloating
- Abnormally foul-smelling stools
- Bloody stool (the blood may be red, black or tarry in texture)
- Changes in stool color or consistency
- Fecal incontinence (inability to control stools)
- Nausea with or without vomiting
- Painful bowel movements
- Urgent need to pass stool
Mucus in the stool may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
- Body aches
- General ill feeling
In some cases, mucus in stool may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
- Bloody stool (the blood may be red, black or tarry in texture)
- Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
- Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions
- High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Not producing any urine, or an infant who does not produce the usual amount of wet diapers
- Pus in the stool
- Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
- Rigidity of the abdomen
- Severe abdominal, rectal or anal pain
- Vomiting blood or rectal bleeding
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your mucus in stool including:
- When did you first notice mucus in your stool?
- Have you noticed any other changes in your stool or bowel habits?
- Are you having pain or discomfort anywhere?
- Do you have any other symptoms?
- Have you noticed anything that makes it better or worse?
- Have you recently eaten or drunk anything that is unusual for you?
- Is there any possibility you may have eaten spoiled food?
- Do you have symptoms more frequently when you eat certain types of foods?
- What medications are you taking?
Several tests can be used to diagnose bowel cancer including:
- rectal examination
- colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy
- barium enema
- x-ray, ultrasound, rectal ultrasound, CT scan or MRI scan
- blood tests, including a carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) test – CEA is produced in high quantities by some cancer cells, especially in bowel cancer.
The mucus in stool can link to irritable bowel syndrome.
Treatment options for irritable bowel syndrome
There are a number of treatment options for irritable bowel syndrome. These are described below. Which treatments you are offered will depend on your personal circumstances. Your doctor will discuss these with you to help you make a decision that’s right for you. Your decision will be based on your doctor’s expert opinion and your own personal values and preferences.
Although there is no cure for IBS, there are many self-help measures and lifestyle changes you can make that may help to improve your symptoms. You may also wish to try medicines and psychological treatments. With the help of your GP, you can decide which is best for you. However, if your symptoms don’t cause you too much trouble or stop you from doing things, you may wish to have no treatment at all.
Making lifestyle changes may help to ease your symptoms of IBS.
The following general advice about your diet may help.
- Eat regular meals and give yourself plenty of time to eat them.
- Make sure you drink enough fluids. Try to limit your intake of caffeinated drinks, such as tea and coffee, to a maximum of three cups a day. Don’t drink too much alcohol or fizzy drinks.
- Try to reduce the amount of fibre in your diet. Aim to eat no more than three portions of fruit a day.
- You may also find it helpful to cut down on foods that are rich in insoluble fibre. These include wholemeal bread, wholegrain rice and cereals that contain bran.
- Try to limit your intake of processed foods. These may contain ‘resistant starch’ that is difficult for your body to digest.
- If you have diarrhoea, you may wish to cut out artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol. This is used in some sugar-free sweets, drinks and diet products.
- If you have wind and feel bloated, try eating oats, which are found in some cereals and porridge. You may also find that eating one tablespoon of linseeds each day helps.
- Probiotics contain helpful bacteria and yeasts and are found in some yoghurts. There is some evidence that certain strains can be helpful for IBS symptoms, but this isn’t conclusive.
- Some studies suggest that a diet low in certain sugars may help. This is known as a low-FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) diet. It involves reducing the amount of sugar you eat from milk products and certain fruits such as mangos. Research into how well a low-FODMAP diet works is still ongoing. Speak to your GP or a dietitian for more information.
You may find it helpful to keep a food diary to see if certain foods cause your symptoms. Speak to your GP or a dietitian before making major changes to your diet, or if you’re pregnant or have another medical condition.
Regular exercise is a good way to help reduce your symptoms. Aim to do a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, at least five times a week.
If your symptoms are noticeably triggered by stress, you could try learning a relaxation technique to help you deal with your stress.
You may find it helpful to talk to other people who are in a similar situation to you. You can find details about self-help groups from charities that support people with IBS some of these will have websites with contact details. Don’t forget, you can also speak to your GP about this. He or she may also be able to give you information about local self-help groups.
If these self-help treatments don’t work, see your GP for advice. He or she can help you identify factors that may be making your IBS worse, and suggest other treatments.
If your symptoms don’t improve with lifestyle changes, you may wish to try medicines. There are several over-the-counter medicines that may relieve some of your symptoms. Speak to your pharmacist if you’d like more information about your treatment options.
- Laxatives, such as ispaghula (eg Fybogel), can help if you have constipation. These are known as bulk-forming laxatives. Bowel-stimulating laxatives, such as senna, may also help. However, if you need to take them for more than two weeks, it’s important to speak to your GP.
- Antispasmodic medicines, such as mebeverine hydrochloride (eg Colofac) and peppermint oil capsules may help with abdominal pain wind. Again, speak to your GP if you find the need to use these often.
- Antidiarrhoea medicines, such as loperamide (eg Imodium), may help. However, only take them as and when you need them and not on a regular basis.
Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
If these treatments don’t ease your symptoms, your GP may also offer you a low-dose antidepressant. This can reduce the pain of IBS, even if you’re not depressed.
If your symptoms don’t improve, your GP may recommend psychological treatment.
Talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy or psychotherapy may help to relieve the symptoms of IBS. These may help you cope with your condition. Some studies suggest that psychological therapies like these may be helpful in improving the symptoms of IBS, although research is still ongoing. More research is needed to look into how well these treatments work, especially in the long term.
If you would like to try this kind of therapy, ask your GP if he or she can suggest a suitable therapist. You can also look for a therapist yourself. If you do this, make sure you check that they are fully qualified and registered with a relevant professional organisation.