Yellow Diarrhea: 9 Common Causes (& What to Do)

Updated in August 2023

Yellow diarrhea in adults can be a sign of excess stress, but it can also be caused by intestinal infection, gallbladder problems or pancreatic issues.

Yellow diarrhea occurs when stool passes too quickly through the intestinal tract. The body is unable to absorb the fat in the stool properly, leading to fat being eliminated in the stool, which gives it a yellow appearance. Because of the quick flow, the stool is unable to bulk-up, which makes it watery. 

This problem will usually last for just a day or two, therefore if yellow diarrhea happens for longer periods, it is important seek a medical evaluation. Any time diarrhea is experienced, adequate water intake is important to prevent dehydration caused by fluid loss in the stool. Meals should also be lighter to reduce intestinal load while recovering. 

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Why do I have yellow diarrhea?

Diarrhea tends to be more watery in consistency. Learn more about what causes more solid yellow poop and what you can do to treat it. 

The most common causes of yellow diarrhea include:

1. Anxiety or stress

Anxiety or stress are the most common causes of diarrhea. Both of these will trigger increased bowel movements, which makes it difficult for the intestines to absorb nutrients and water. This results in softer or watery stools.

In addition, anxiety attacks can increase blood flow to the legs and decrease blood flow to the intestinal tract. This will make digestion more difficult and result in increased fat content in the stools (which will make them yellow). It is common to have yellow diarrhea when you are anxious or stressed, but it typically resolves within a day or two.

What to do: It is important to identify the source of your stress or anxiety so that you can prevent it in the future. It may also be beneficial to adopt habits or behaviors that will help you cope and relax, like exercising, reading or meditating. Check out herbs for anxiety that can be used to make soothing, sedative teas. 

2. Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome are also a frequent cause of diarrhea. Although diarrhea may not always be yellow, irritated bowels may interfere with fat absorption in the intestine, resulting in more yellow stools.

Other symptoms associated with this condition include abdominal pain, excess gas and alternating periods of constipation and diarrhea.

What to do: To relieve intestinal symptoms and yellow diarrhea, you should identify the foods that trigger your intestinal flare-ups. In general, you should avoid dark leafy greens, alcohol and coffee. A FODMAP diet is often recommended for patients with chronic intestinal symptoms. In some cases, your doctor or gastroenterologist may prescribe medication to help treat your symptoms. 

3. Decrease in bile levels

Bile is a substance that is important for digestion. It metabolizes fat and helps it to be better absorbed in the intestines. When bile levels become decreased, fat will remain in the intestines, resulting in yellower, more liquid stools. Other common symptoms associated with decreased bile include dark urine, fatigue, weight loss and a low-grade fever.

In addition, bile also gives the normal brown color you usually see in stools, and therefore it is expected for low bile levels to result in yellow stools. Problems that can cause low bile levels include gallstones or liver abnormalities, like inflammation, cirrhosis and cancer.

What to do: You should see your doctor or gastroenterologist for assessment. He or she may order testing to determine why your levels are low, and from there, indicate treatment as necessary

4. Pancreatic problems

When the pancreas is not functioning properly due to inflammation (from an infection, a tumor, cystic fibrosis or a blocked duct, for example), it is unable to produce sufficient pancreatic enzymes. Without sufficient enzymes, the body is unable to adequately break down fats and other nutrients, which can result in yellow diarrhea.

In addition to diarrhea, you may also experience symptoms like a full stomach sensation after eating, excess gas, frequent urge to poop, and weight loss.

What to do: If you suspect any pancreatic abnormalities, you should proceed to the hospital immediately for assessment and treatment. Medications may be prescribed, like analgesics or anti-inflammatories, and pancreatic enzyme supplements may also be advised. In some cases, diet changes may be necessary. If pancreatic issues are cancer-related, surgery following chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be recommended. 

5. Intestinal infection

An intestinal infection can occur as a result of contaminated food or water. Infections can cause inflammation in the intestinal lining, which will impede with absorption of water, fat and other nutrients. This can cause yellow diarrhea. Intestinal infections can also lead to other symptoms like frequent vomiting, headache, loss of appetite and fever.

Read more about the symptoms of an intestinal infection

What to do: It is important to rest and maintain hydration when you have an intestinal infection. Meals should be light and should consist of easily digestible food to help to speed-up recovery. See the home remedies for an intestinal infection that you can try to manage mild symptoms. 

6. Liver disease

Illnesses in the liver, like cirrhosis, hepatitis or cancer, can cause yellow diarrhea, as these condition interfere with the production of bile. This can lead to decreased fat absorption in the body, which changes stool color and makes them lighter in color and more liquid. 

Depending on the disease, the yellow diarrhea may occur with other symptoms, such as general malaise, abdominal pain, bloating, yellow skin, red rashes, vomiting and weight loss. Learn more about the symptoms of liver disease that you should not ignore, and assess your risk for liver disease using our online quiz.

What to do: You should consult a family doctor liver specialist for assessment. The doctor may order testing to confirm a diagnosis. Treatment depends on the illness at hand, and may involve medication, diet changes, rest, surgery or even a liver transplant. 

7. Using orlistat

Orlistat, also known as Xenical, is a medication that works be inhibiting fat absorption in the intestines, which can lead to yellow, more liquid bowels. It can also cause fecal urgency, excess gas, as well as an increased in total bowel movements per day. 

This medication should be used for weight loss, cholesterol management and diabetes manage as prescribed by a doctor

What to do: It is important to use this medication solely as directed by your doctor, as it can significantly reduce the absorption of fat and liposoluble vitamins in the gut. This medication should be taken alongside a low fat diet to reduce the changes of yellow diarrhea. 

8. Dietary choices

There are certain foods that can cause or worsen diarrhea, like those that are high in carbohydrates, dairy and high fructose foods. These foods may stimulate more intestinal contractions and be harder to breakdown in the gut, leading to diarrhea. Fatty pieces of meat, processed foods and spicy foods can also worsen diarrhea and lead to watery stools. 

What to do: You should avoid or significantly reduce foods that are high in fat (like milk, cheese, and creams), legumes (like beans and chickpeas), and tough or leafy greens (like broccoli, spinach and radish). Check out a more extensive list of foods to avoid with diarrhea so that you can help to recovery more quickly.  

9. Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a condition in which the body is unable to produce the enzyme that is responsible for breaking down gluten. In some cases, people may still produce the enzyme, but in low, insufficient amounts. Because gluten remains undigested along the digestive tract, the immune system is stimulated, leading to lesions along the intestines. This can cause difficulty with absorption of fat and the presence of fat in the stools. 

Due to increased fat content in the stools and hyperstimulation of the intestines, patients may experience yellow diarrhea (which may also be pale in color) as well as abdominal bloating, cramps and loss of appetite.

What to do: It is important to avoid foods that contain gluten, like bread, pasta and alcoholic drinks, to prevent symptoms. You are advised to see a registered dietitian in order to formulate a diet plan that does not lead to nutritional deficiencies. Be sure to check out the celiac disease diet that is recommended for this condition. 

Yellow diarrhea in babies

Soft and even liquid stools in babies are normal, especially in the first 6 months of an exclusively breastfed baby. Breast milk is composed of high quantities of water, which can contribute to more liquid stools. However, stool should not regularly seep out of diapers, as this can be a sign of diarrhea and requires assessment by the pediatrician.

In addition, yellow stools are common because a baby’s intestines function much quicker than an adult’s, which will make fat absorption more difficult. This is especially true in breastfed babies, as human breast milk contains a high concentration of fat.

Generally, baby stools are only concerning if all poops are excessive in quantity, or if stools have a pink, red, white or black color.