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Digestive Health and Wellness

When You Should Be Alarmed By Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Marissa Lombardi

Project Coordinator, International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders

The following is a list of a few gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms which should be taken seriously and investigated by your healthcare provider.

  • Bleeding when having a bowel movement (BM). GI bleeding can be apparent in various ways. Bright red blood that covers the surface of a BM signifies bleeding at the end of the large intestine. This can be caused by mild injuries such as an anal fissure or more severe disease. The presence of bright red blood throughout a BM is likely a sign of bleeding in the colon that could be a result of infection or chronic disease such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Dark, tar-like BMs can be the result of slow blood loss within the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum.

  • If vomiting occurs outside of acute illness, a functional or structural abnormality may be present. Vomiting that is excessive or contains blood should always be investigated. Blood can appear as bright red, dark red, or black and tarry. Any presence of blood in vomit could signify some form of damage or injury within the GI tract that requires medical attention.

  • A fever is a rise in normal body temperature above 98.6 degrees F (37 degrees C). Often caused by inflammation, this can be infectious, such as acute bacterial gastroenteritis (food poisoning), or non-infectious, such as IBD. Most people experience a fever during acute illness, but if the fever persists or occurs without illness, it is important to inform your health care provider.

  • Sudden, significant, and unintentional weight loss can be the result of underlying health conditions and can negatively impact your body’s overall health. As a rule of thumb, a loss of 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) or more over 3 months without an explanation should be investigated.

  • Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, suggests there may be partially obstruction, inflamed muscles, or improper muscle function of the esophagus. A possible cause for inflammation is eosinophilic esophagitis (EOE), a rare, chronic, allergic inflammatory disease that can lead to persistent difficulty swallowing. An endoscopy may be required to locate the source of dysphagia, such as a narrowing (stricture), a fibrous band at the lower esophagus (Schatzki ring), poor opening of lower sphincter (achalasia), or tumor.

  • It is always important to seek immediate medical attention for sharp chest pain and other cardiovascular symptoms. If a cardiologist rules out heart-related conditions, patients are often referred to a gastroenterologist to investigate an esophageal cause. By examining health history, it can be determined if the pain is due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which has various treatments available.

If you experience one or more “alarm” symptoms, schedule time to discuss these with your health care provider. Any sudden change in bowel habits or other gut symptoms as you age are important to discuss, as early intervention plays a key role in effective treatment of all conditions.

Many GI conditions are hereditary, making an accurate family health history important. Although sharing GI habits and symptoms is not always a comfortable conversation, encourage an open family discussion. Alarm symptoms and noticeable changes are the human body’s way of calling for help, so always be prompt to answer this call and notify your health care provider.

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