Yes, you should worry if your stools are gray.
Gray stools are concerning. Sometimes when doctors talk about grey stools, they use the terms “clay colored” or “pale.”
However, “clay” can bring up images of bowel movements that are the color of the standard clay pot that people plant flowers in: a dull or salmon-like orange.
But the “gray” here is an actual greyish hue, like what would result if you mixed white paint with black.
Causes of Grey Stools
“A person’s usual stools in terms of color, shape and consistency are based on their diet,” begins Franjo Vladic, MD, a board certified gastroenterologist with Center for Digestive Health and Endoscopy Center in Ohio.
“However, if a person’s stools are clay colored or pale, health care providers will be concerned about the patient’s biliary system,” continues Dr. Vladic, whom I interviewed for this article.
“This could be a sign of bile duct obstruction (gallstones, pancreatitis, inflammation of the liver or pancreatic cancer).
“Clay colored stools indicate the biliary system is not draining properly because of a blockage. If the system drains properly, stools will either present as shades of green to brown.”
- The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2016, about 53,070 people in the U.S. (27,670 men, 25,400 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
- Risk factors that can be changed: tobacco use; obesity as well as being overweight primarily in the midsection though not very overweight elsewhere; exposure to dry cleaning and metal working chemicals; lack of exercise (according to some studies but not all).
- Uncontrollable risk factors: age, being black (a mild risk that’s not understood), family history, genetic syndromes, diabetes (type II mainly), chronic pancreatitis, liver cirrhosis, pylori stomach infection.
“If the stools are not pale or clay colored, the color is affected by the patient’s diet,” says Dr. Vladic.
Don’t be afraid to check your stool color every now and then; grey means you must see a doctor.