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Steatorrhea - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Published on Jan 24, 2020   -  5 min read

Abstract

Abstract

Bulky or excessively fatty stools is called steatorrhea. They are difficult to flush, pale, and abnormally foul-smelling. Read about its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options

Steatorrhea - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Contents

What Is Steatorrhea?

Your stool is made up mostly of water, along with fiber, bacteria, protein, mucus, salts, cell linings, and fats. Steatorrhea is when there is too much fat in your feces, which is common after a high-fat content meal. A fatty stool can be a sign of malabsorption. Malabsorption can occur either if the body is not able to absorb nutrients properly, or there is not enough production of enzymes or bile, which is needed to digest food. The underlying cause of fatty stool should be diagnosed to treat the condition.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Steatorrhea?

The signs of steatorrhea are:

Severe or chronic steatorrhea can cause malabsorption and dehydration, so if steatorrhea is caused by an underlying condition, then the other signs and symptoms are:

What Are the Causes of Steatorrhea?

Steatorrhea can occur after eating meals high in indigestible fat, potassium oxalate, and fiber. Some common foods that can cause this problem include:

On the other hand, a bulky and fatty stool can also mean that the digestive system is not breaking down food properly. It also indicates that the body is not able to absorb fats from your diet efficiently. The common conditions that can result in malabsorption are:

  1. Cystic fibrosis - an inherited condition, which affects the mucus and sweat gland, and other organs.

  2. Whipple disease - it is a bacterial infection of the gut, which affects the way the body breaks down fats and carbohydrates.

  3. Crohn’s disease - it is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

  4. Lactose intolerance - the inability to digest lactose (a sugar in milk products) due to the lack of enzyme lactase.

  5. Chronic pancreatitis - it is the inflammation of the pancreas, which is an organ that secretes enzymes that help in the digestion of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

  6. Celiac disease - sensitivity to gluten (a protein present in wheat and some other grains).

  7. Biliary atresia - the ducts that carry bile to the gallbladder from the liver is blocked.

  8. Kidney disease or failure.

  9. Liver failure.

  10. Gaucher disease and Tay-Sachs disease - conditions affecting fat metabolism.

  11. Hypoparathyroidism - less production of parathyroid hormone.

  12. Gallbladder cancer or gallstones.

  13. Gastric bypass surgery.

  14. Amyloidosis.

  15. Congestive heart failure.

  16. Diabetes.

  17. Taking cholesterol medications.

  18. HIV infection.

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Steatorrhea?

If your stools float, look greasy, pale-colored, unusually foul-smelling, and other symptoms of malabsorption, the best thing to do is consult a doctor. After taking a complete medical history, your doctor will suggest you get the following tests done:

  1. Qualitative test - this measures the number of fat globules in the stool sample. Normally, neutral fat globules should be less than 50 and fatty acid fat globules should be less than 100.

  1. Quantitative test - here, stool samples are collected for over 2 to 4 days, and all the samples are studied to determine the amount of fat in every day’s stool. The normal results for adults are 2 to 7 grams per 24 hours, and that of infants are less than 1 gram per 24 hours.

  1. D-Xylose test - D-Xylose is a type of sugar, and this test is done to check for malabsorption. This test measures the amounts of D-Xylose in the blood or urine.

  1. Other tests - If needed, the doctor will perform other tests to check for celiac disease, lactose intolerance, etc., based on your other symptoms.

What Are the Treatment Options for Steatorrhea?

To treat steatorrhea, the underlying cause has to be identified and treated. As malabsorption can have many possible causes, it is crucial to diagnose the cause. If a certain food item is triggering it, then the best thing to do is to avoid it. For example, if you have lactose intolerant, then avoid milk products and for celiac disease, avoid wheat and other foods items that contain gluten.

Mild cases can often be treated at home with rest and basic treatment. The following home remedies can help you if you are suffering from a mild case of steatorrhea:

Severe cases of steatorrhea might need medical treatment. The treatment options include:

What Are the Possible Complications of Steatorrhea?

If steatorrhea is due to a serious underlying disease, no treatment can result in the following complications.

  1. Anemia.

  2. Failure to thrive (infants and children).

  3. Frequent infections.

  4. Stunted growth in children.

  5. Intestinal obstruction.

  6. Rupture of the intestinal wall.

  7. Poor nutrition.

  8. Need to remove parts of the digestive tract surgically.

Get immediate medical attention if you or your child is suffering from severe or chronic steatorrhea. As it can lead to severe dehydration, heart attack, and organ failure.

For more information on steatorrhea, consult a gastroenterologist online!

 

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Frequently Asked Questions


1.

What Foods Can I Eat If I Have Steatorrhea?

Whole grains are found to be very beneficial in patients suffering from steatorrhea. The fiber found in oatmeal and whole-wheat bread can help in bulking up the stool. This, in turn, results in improving the symptoms seen in steatorrhea.

2.

Why Is My Stool Fatty?

Yes, you may have fat in your stool. This condition is known as steatorrhea. It is a sign that indicates that your food moving through your gastrointestinal tract is expelled without being absorbed properly. This is known as malabsorption.

3.

What Does Steatorrhea Feel Like?

Steatorrhea presents with fatty stools that are noted to float in the toilet bowl. These stools are often challenging to flush correctly. In the early stages of this condition, patients are asymptomatic and go unnoticed. Patients also have significant underlying causes of fat malabsorption like chronic diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, bloating sensation, and weight loss.

4.

How Can I Treat Steatorrhea?

The following are specific lifestyle changes and home remedies to get relief when you are suffering from steatorrhea.
- Always stay hydrated.
- Reduce the dietary intake of fiber.
- Reducing nutritional fats in your meal.
- Quit smoking.
- Quit alcohol use.
- Limit the intake of potassium oxalate.

5.

How Can I Diagnose Steatorrhea?

You cannot diagnose steatorrhea entirely at home. You will only be able to experience and notice steatorrhea symptoms. To achieve a proper clinical diagnosis, you have to consult a doctor. The doctor may need to perform one or more than one among the following procedures to diagnose steatorrhea.
- History taking.
- Physical examination.
- Fecal fat test to check the fat content of stool. While some doctors may use a 24-hour test for fecal fat.

6.

Can Gastritis Be a Risk Factor of Steatorrhea?

Yes, the condition seen in gastritis, such as peptic ulcer disease (PUD) and Zollinger-Ellison syndrome can be a risk factor for steatorrhea. The most common symptoms associated with these diseases include mild to severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and enhanced amounts of fat in the stools (steatorrhea).

7.

Can Gallbladder Diseases Be a Cause of Steatorrhea?

Yes, steatorrhea that is chronic most commonly results from diseases of the biliary tract, pancreas, or intestines. It is because the fat absorption is primarily dependent upon bile, pancreatic lipases, and normal intestinal motility and absorption.

8.

Does Pancreatitis Cause Steatorrhea?

Yes, pancreatitis can cause steatorrhea. A lack of pancreatic enzymes is seen in diseases where there is pancreatic damage. In turn, it results in poor digestion and absorption of food. Thus, weight loss is a characteristic symptom of chronic pancreatitis. Patients frequently experience bulk and smelly bowel movements, mainly due to fat (steatorrhea).

9.

What Does an Oily Stool Mean?

Steatorrhea is also known as the greasy stool or oily stool, which means that a person has too much fat in their stool. This condition can be commonly caused by decreased amounts of bile in the digestive system. Because bile predominantly helps break down the stool's fats effectively and absorbs all our fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.

10.

How Does Steatorrhea Differ From Other Types of Diarrhea?

A person affected by steatorrhea will have malabsorptive diarrhea characterized by excess gas, steatorrhea, or weight loss. Giardiasis is a classic infectious disease that presents with steatorrhea. When a person has steatorrhea, it can also be identified by oil slicks in the toilet water.

11.

What Are the Frequently Seen Causes of Steatorrhea?

The most common causes of steatorrhea are:
- Bile salt deficiency.
- Pancreatic enzyme deficiency such as the lipase or amylase.
- Defective conditional mutants synthesis.
- Lymphatic obstruction.

12.

What Are the Symptoms of Steatorrhea?

The following are the symptoms you might experience if you are affected with steatorrhea.
- Prolonged loose stools.
- The stool might look very heavy, foul-smelling, fat-filled.
- Anemia.
- Muscle weakness and pain.
- Easy fatigability.
- Loss of weight.
- Fever.
- Vision problems.
- Oil slicks in the toilet water.

13.

Can Steatorrhea Be Seen in Celiac Disease?

Yes, steatorrhea can be seen in a patient who is affected by celiac disease. Since steatorrhea is one of the chief clinical features of fat malabsorption, many conditions like the exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), celiac disease, and tropical sprue are seen in many conditions.

14.

Can Steatorrhea Be Treated Permanently?

The prognosis of steatorrhea treatment primarily depends on factors such as the cause and severity of symptoms. Mild cases of steatorrhea are successfully treated at home with rest and other home remedies. Prognosis can be excellent if the patient reduces their dietary fat intake, quits smoking, and drinks plenty of water.

Article Resources

Last reviewed at:
24 Jan 2020  -  5 min read

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Dr. Anshul Varshney

Dr. Anshul Varshney

M.B.B.S, M.D. Medicine

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