Floating stools — What do they say about my health?

Dear Alice,

What does the stool that floats say about a person's health? Does it matter if your stool floats or not? What is healthier?

Dear Reader,  

The color, consistency, and smell of stools say a lot about a person’s health and their diet. And here's a fun fact: healthy stools typically sink. However, floating stools don’t necessarily mean that there is a health problem, especially if they occur on their own without any other symptom or health issue. Usually, floating stools result from consumption of food or a change in diet that can lead to excess flatus (also known as gas), which makes the stool less dense and thus allows it to float. While floating may not be a particular concern, other factors including and beyond the float may be an indicator of health concerns. 

One such concern is when stools appear greasy and smell far fouler than usual. These characteristics may be an indicator of nutrient malabsorption, particularly when accompanied by weight loss. This occurs when the body doesn’t completely digest and absorb nutrients from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. According to the National Institute of Health, normal intestinal bacteria digest foods (typically sugars, fats, vitamins, and proteins) that haven’t already been digested in the small intestine. Malabsorption can be caused by either problems or damage to the small intestine, a lack of enzymes made from the pancreas that aid in nutrient absorption, or other complications such as HIV/AIDS, liver disease, and even the use of certain medications. Alternative explanations for floating stools include diarrhea, acute GI infections, and pancreatitis, though these are far less common and are usually accompanied by other symptoms.   

It may be helpful to keep track of any changes to your diet and see whether removing certain foods causes symptoms to disappear. However, it’s wise to see a health care provider if you notice a change in stool characteristics lasting over two weeks or if these symptoms are accompanied by blood, weight loss, fever, or dizziness. To learn more about digestion, you could check out the Stomach & Other Gastrointestinal Grumblings section of the Go Ask Alice! General Health archives or the related Q&As.  

Here's hoping this answer floats your, er… boat. 

Last updated Oct 08, 2021
Originally published Jul 24, 2009

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