5 bowel symptoms that doctors worry about
A big night out, a dodgy takeaway or viral gastro- these things can affect normal bowel function for a few days- but things usually settle down quickly and everything returns to normal. However, there are certain bowel symptoms that make doctors more concerned, and can mean something more serious is going, such as colitis or bowel cancer. It’s worth being aware of these warning signs:
A persistent change in bowel habit
If you’ve always had a certain pattern when it comes to your bowels, but then develop a new pattern for no obvious reason, it can be a sign of a problem such as inflammation or blockage in the bowel. So, if diarrhoea, constipation or other changes happen ( for example, more frequent bowel motions, or if the motions have a long thin shape), and this issue continues for more than 1-2 weeks, you should see your doctor to get it checked.
Blood in your bowel motion
This should never be ignored! While it may simply be a bleeding haemorrhoid or a tear, unfortunately nastier things like bowel cancer or colitis can have the same symptoms. With haemorrhoids the blood tends to be most noticeable when wiping or may drip into the toilet bowl after you pass a motion. Haemorrhoids often cause an itchy bottom and sometimes can be felt as tender swellings just outside the anus. If bleeding is happening further up in the bowel, the bowel motions may have a black tarry appearance. Far too often people wait months before telling their doctor they are bleeding from the back passage or that they’ve noticed blood in their bowel motions- but it should ALWAYS be discussed as soon as possible, as a camera test (colonoscopy) is often needed to rule out more serious conditions.
This is the medical term for a feeling like you still need to pass a bowel motion, even though you’ve just been to the toilet. It’s a sensation of fullness or needing to go again. It can mean there is a lump or swelling in your lower bowel. Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis) is a common cause, though other issues can include bowel cancer, an abscess in the bowel, irritable bowel syndrome, haemorrhoids, polyps, and sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia. In women it can also be caused by endometriosis. If you have tenesmus it’s important to see your doctor as soon as you can, as it’s almost certain you’ll need a camera test (colonoscopy) to rule out serious causes like bowel cancer.
Mucus in your bowel motion
If you notice mucus or pus on your bowel motion, or you are simply passing mucus by itself, it can be a sign of inflammation or irritation inside the bowel. Causes can range from infection to inflammation- in fact most of the conditions that can cause tenesmus (see above). Again, this symptom should never be ignored, and you should discuss it with your doctor as soon as possible.
Symptoms at night
Unlike many other causes of diarrhoea, in inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn’s disease), a person will often wake up through the night with diarrhoea and cramps.
If you’ve got any of the above symptoms AND are experiencing unexplained fatigue, weight loss, reduced appetite, or ongoing abdominal pain, it is even more crucial to speak to your doctor- conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and bowel cancer need to be ruled out.
If you’re worried about your bowel function, make sure you speak to your GP.