It begins with a rumble in the stomach. Or maybe it's an episode of belching. However it starts, it quickly escalates to everyone's worst nightmare: an urgent need to use the bathroom when no restroom is in sight—or, worse still, when the only bathroom is within earshot of your coworkers.
We've all experienced the embarrassment of gastrointestinal problems, and most of the time, these issues are little more than an inconvenience. Sometimes, though, gastrointestinal distress provides an important clue to a more serious health condition. The stigma surrounding digestion and elimination dissuades many people from seeking help, but early interventions can combat even the most serious problems. If you experience any of these symptoms, it's time to swallow your pride and chat with your doctor.
1. Rectal bleeding
Hemorrhoids are the most common cause of rectal bleeding, so most episodes of such bleeding aren't dangerous. But if you've never had hemorrhoids before, and this is your first episode of rectal bleeding, talk to your doctor. If the bleeding is heavy or accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, it is a medical emergency that warrants a trip to your local ER or urgent care facility.
2. Chronic diarrhea
Diarrhea is an unfortunate and inescapable fact of life. It should not, however, be an everyday problem. When diarrhea that lasts more than seven days, is severe enough to keep you home from work, or leaves you feeling weak and malnourished, you need to see your doctor.
3. Severe vomiting
Vomiting may be unpleasant, but it's rarely dangerous. If you frequently vomit for no reason, have been vomiting for more than 48 hours, or experience symptoms of dehydration, it's time to talk to your doctor. And if you experience any of the following symptoms, go to the emergency room immediately:
- Dizziness and confusion accompanied by vomiting
- Blood in your vomit
- Vomiting bile
- Intense stomach pain—more than just a stomach ache or stomach virus—associated with vomiting
- Intense vomiting during pregnancy or when you are lactating
4. Chronic constipation
Constipation is a frustrating—and frustratingly common—experience, especially for pregnant women and people with food sensitivities. The occasional bout of constipation is fine to treat at home, but if you go more than a week without a bowel movement, experience intense pain associated with constipation, vomit while you are constipated, or have chronic constipation, it's time to seek help.
5. Unusual stools
If your stool color or texture changes for more than a week or so, chat with your doctor about it. Weird though it may seem, your stool can provide many valuable clues about your health. Some warning signs include:
- Green stool, which could signal a liver problem—unless you've been eating lots of green vegetables; don't worry unless the discoloration continues.
- Mucous-laden stools can suggest malabsorption of nutrients or celiac disease.
- Black or tarry stool, which can signal upper digestive bleeding.
- Red or bloody stool, which is always a medical emergency.
- White or light-colored stool, which may indicate a bile duct obstruction.