A colorectal surgeon highlights the signs and symptoms you should never ignore
By Lisa Salmon
Even though we all do it, many people don't feel especially comfortable talking - and maybe even thinking - about poo. But the fact is, it's something we all need to keep an eye on, because if your poo's not 'normal' it could mean there's something wrong.
What does 'normal' mean though?
"When it comes to bowels, everyone is different and there really is no 'normal'. From frequency of bowel movements, to consistency and colour, bowel habits can vary a lot from person to person," explains Mr Colin Elton, a consultant colorectal surgeon at The Wellington Hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK .
"However," he adds. "There certainly are things you should look out for and seek medical advice for."
And this advice applies at any age. Although conditions like bowel cancer are far more common in older age groups, younger people should never ignore any potential warning signs. Chances are you won't have cancer - but it's important to get things checked immediately, so treatment can start as soon as possible if required.
It may also be necessary to check for other conditions, like inflammatory bowel diseases and food intolerances. Your doctor will be able to refer you for any tests that may be necessary and advise on suitable treatments and lifestyle changes that may help.
Here, Elton outlines the key warning signs to help decipher what's normal and what's not, and when it might be time to see your GP and get things checked...
1. Blood in your stools
Finding blood in your stools is arguably the most vital symptom to indicate you should visit your GP. If you notice any blood in your stools, whether it's just a very small amount or a substantial amount, is bright in colour or dark in colour, in the stool itself or in the toilet bowl; you should always seek medical advice from your doctor.
Rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away, which far too many people do, it's better to visit your GP in the first instance that it occurs, and don't ignore it regardless of whether it happened on just one occasion or multiple times.
Although there are many different reasons why there might be blood in your poo and not all of them are a cause for concern, it's always best to get it checked out, to rule out an underlying cause for concern and get the right treatment. Chances are the cause will be something very treatable. But ultimately, blood in the loo is one of the few clear symptoms for a number of more serious conditions, such as colorectal cancer, so it's vital you get checked.
2. Changes in bowel habits
Bowel changes and fluctuations can be normal. Although unpleasant, most people will experience constipation or diarrhoea on occasion due to various factors, such as dehydration, diet changes, exercise or common viral and bacterial illnesses. However, if a change in your bowel habits is extreme, you're struggling to cope with symptoms or pain, or the change is persistent, lasting more than two to three weeks, it's best to get it checked out.
3. Frequency of bowel movements
A normal amount of bowel movements is considered to be anywhere between three times per day, to three times per week. If you typically have bowel movements once a day, for example, then this is normal and the same goes for somebody who perhaps uses the toilet just three times per week.
If you notice you've been using the toilet much more frequently or much more often than usual, this might indicate you have an underlying problem. Temporary changes are normal and usually settle after a couple of days, but if they last for longer than two to three weeks, visit your doctor.
4. Consistency of stools
Similarly to the frequency of bowel movements, consistency of stools differs from person to person. Some people have looser stools, whereas others have harder, smaller stools - both ends of the scale are normal.
Visit your doctor if you experience loose stools which have a very liquid, runny consistency and last for more than a couple of weeks; stools which are hard and difficult to pass and last for more than a couple of weeks; or inconsistent stools - where you experience a combination of the above for more than a couple of weeks.
5. Other potentially worrying symptoms
Abdominal swelling and pain, alongside any of the symptoms mentioned above, could indicate a variety of underlying issues. Although this type of pain isn't typically associated with colorectal cancers, it could indicate conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like Crohn's disease and colitis, and dietary intolerances. It's important that you visit your doctor as soon as possible to get things checked, regardless of your age or perceived risk.