Yellow Diarrhea: 5 Common Causes (& What to Do)

November 2022

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

Yellow diarrhea happens when stool passes too quickly through the intestinal tract. The body is unable to absorb the fat in the stool properly, and fat is eliminated in the stool, giving it a yellow appearance.

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. 

Main causes of yellow diarrhea

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 liquid 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.

2. Irritable bowel

Irritable bowels 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 alleviate your symptoms (which can include yellow diarrhea), you should identify the foods that trigger your intestinal flare-ups. In general, you should avoid dark leafy greens, alcohol and coffee. 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 gallbladder stones 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.

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.

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.

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Edited by Tua Saude editing team in November 2022. Medical review completed by Dr. Clarisse Bezerra - Family Doctor in November 2021.

References

  • CANADIAN SOCIETY OF INTESTINAL RESEARCH. Stress and Your Gut. Available on: <https://badgut.org/information-centre/a-z-digestive-topics/stress-and-your-gut/>. Access in 12 Oct 2022
  • FARRUGIA, A; ARASARADNAM, R . Bile acid diarrhoea: pathophysiology, diagnosis and management. Frontline Gastroenterology . Vol.12, n.6. 500-507, 2021
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  • MEDICAL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA . Infections of the Small Intestine. Available on: <https://muschealth.org/medical-services/ddc/patients/digestive-diseases/small-intestine/infections-of-the-small-intestine>. Access in 12 Oct 2022
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Medical review:
Dr. Clarisse Bezerra
Family Doctor
Dr. Bezerra possesses a medical degree and specializes in family medicine. She is licensed to practice under CRM-CE licence #16976.