Bleeding in the Digestive Tract

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Bleeding in the Digestive Tract
What Causes Bleeding in the Digestive Tract?
How is Bleeding in the Digestive Tract Recognized?
What Signs Indicate Bleeding in the Digestive Tract?
How is Bleeding in the Digestive Tract Diagnosed?
How is Bleeding in the Digestive Tract Treated?

Digestive Diseases:
Bleeding in the Digestive Tract

Bleeding in the digestive tract is a symptom of a problem rather than a disease itself. Most causes of bleeding are related to conditions that can be cured or controlled, such as hemorrhoids.

The cause of bleeding may not be serious, but locating the source of bleeding is critical. The digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) tract includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, rectum and anus. Bleeding can come from one or more of these areas, that is, from a small area such as an ulcer on the lining of the stomach or from a more diffuse problem such as inflammation of the colon.

Bleeding can sometimes occur without you even knowing about it. This type of bleeding is called occult or hidden. Fortunately, simple tests can detect occult blood in the stool.

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What Causes Bleeding in the Digestive Tract?

Bleeding from the esophagus can be caused by:

Bleeding from the stomach can be caused by:

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How Is Bleeding in the Digestive Tract Recognized?

The signs of bleeding in the digestive tract depend on the site and severity of bleeding.

If blood is coming from the rectum or the lower colon, bright red blood will coat or mix with your stool. The stool may be mixed with darker blood if the bleeding is higher up in the colon or at the far end of the small intestine.

When there is bleeding in the esophagus, stomach or duodenum, the stool is usually black or tarry. Vomit may be bright red or have a "coffee-grounds" appearance when bleeding is from the esophagus, stomach or duodenum.

If bleeding is occult, or hidden, you might not notice any changes in stool color.

If sudden massive bleeding occurs, a person may feel weak, dizzy, faint, short of breath or have cramp-like abdominal pain or diarrhea. Shock may occur, with a rapid pulse, drop in blood pressure and difficulty in producing urine. You may become very pale.

If bleeding is slow and occurs over a long period of time, a gradual onset of fatigue, lethargy, shortness of breath and pallor (or paleness of the skin) from anemia will result. Anemia is a condition in which the blood's iron-rich substance, hemoglobin, is diminished.

Note that iron and some foods, such as beets, can give the stool a red or black appearance, falsely indicating blood in the stool.

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What Signs Indicate Bleeding in the Digestive Tract?

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How Is Bleeding in the Digestive Tract Diagnosed?

If you notice any abnormal bleeding, make an appointment to see your doctor. Your doctor will ask you many questions and perform a physical examination. Symptoms such as changes in bowel habits, stool color (black or red), consistency, and the presence of pain or tenderness may tell your doctor which area of the GI tract is affected.

The doctor will test the stool for blood before offering a diagnosis. A blood count will indicate whether you are anemic and also will give an idea of the extent of the bleeding and how chronic it may be.

Your doctor will likely perform an endoscopy. Endoscopy is a common procedure that allows your doctor to directly view the site of the bleeding. In many cases, the doctor can use the endoscope to treat the cause of bleeding as well. The endoscope is a flexible instrument that can be inserted through the mouth or rectum to allow visualization (and possible tissue sampling or biopsy, or treatment) of the areas of concern.

Several other procedures may be used to locate the source of bleeding, including:

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How Is Bleeding in the Digestive Tract Treated?

Once the underlying cause of the bleeding has been identified, most people with digestive tract bleeding can be effectively treated.

The use of endoscopy has grown and now allows doctors to see not only bleeding sites but to directly apply therapy as well. A variety of endoscopic therapies are useful for treating digestive tract bleeding. Active bleeding from the upper digestive tract can often be controlled by injecting chemicals directly into a bleeding site with a needle introduced through the endoscope. A doctor can also cauterize, or treat with heat, a bleeding site and surrounding tissue through the endoscope.

Endoscopic techniques do not always control bleeding and sometimes angiography may be needed. However, surgery is often required to control active, severe or recurrent bleeding when endoscopy is not successful.

Once bleeding is controlled, medications are often prescribed to prevent recurrence of bleeding.

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Page last reviewed: 12/30/2015

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