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Let's Talk Honestly About Stool Testing

Image of Let's Talk Honestly About Stool Testing
Image of Let's Talk Honestly About Stool Testing

We get it—talking about your bathroom habits is uncomfortable. And just when you thought a brief mention of your “bathroom habits” was awkward enough, we throw another term at you: stool testing.

But here’s the thing: While the idea of this test might make you blush a little, it’s a completely normal (and helpful!) type of assessment that can help you take control of your digestive health.

If you have irritable bowel syndrome or an inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), you might have already heard a little bit about a stool test. Or maybe you’re not diagnosed with either of those conditions, but a doctor recommended you take one to figure out what’s causing your symptoms.

Either way, you probably have some questions. Fortunately, we have answers that you can read from the privacy of your home.

What is a stool test?

A stool test is a non-invasive diagnostic test that analyzes, well, your stool. There are a number of different types of stool tests, but we’re going to focus on a specific and common kind: a fecal calprotectin test.

This type of stool test is primarily used to keep a close eye on people who have a known inflammatory bowel disease or to determine whether someone has an inflammatory disease or is dealing with something else (like irritable bowel syndrome).

Here’s how it works: The test analyzes your stool to look for a specific protein called calprotectin. This protein is present in a variety of bodily fluids (saliva, blood, urine, etc.) when a part of your body is inflamed.

However, when calprotectin is detected in your stool specifically, that’s a direct indicator of something going on with your digestive system. Exactly what you’re dealing with will depend on the level of calprotectin that’s found:

  • High fecal calprotectin levels: Indicates inflammatory bowel disease (or infectious diarrhea)
  • Low or normal fecal calprotectin levels: Indicates irritable bowel syndrome

What’s considered to be a “normal” level of fecal calprotectin? Well, that depends on a variety of factors, including a person’s location, ethnicity, and more. However, here are the general reference values that are used:

  • Normal: Less than or equal to 50.0 mcg/g
  • Borderline: 50.1 to 120.0 mcg/g
  • Abnormal: Greater than or equal to 120.1 mcg/g

Since you can’t see what’s going on in your body, a stool test gives a medical professional the information they need to diagnose what you’re experiencing and help you figure out what treatments will be most beneficial for you.

How do I take a stool test?

It’s probably not often that you’re collecting your own stool, so we can’t blame you if you feel a little nervous or uncertain about how to go about this. Have no fear—it’s pretty easy and straightforward.

Your test kit will include specific instructions about how to collect your sample, and those directions are important to read beforehand. But, in general, here are the steps you’ll take:

  1. Unscrew the cap from your specimen container and set it aside.
  2. Place something in the toilet—like plastic wrap, a shallow pan, or a plastic bag—to collect your stool. Keep in mind you don’t want your sample to mix with urine or water.
  3. Produce your stool sample. You get it, so we’ll spare you the details. 4.Using the spoon that came with your kit, transfer some of your stool to the specimen container to the desired line (it should be marked on your container).
  4. Screw the lid back onto the container tightly.
  5. Label the container with the correct information (if that wasn’t already done for you).
  6. Pack up your samples as directed and either return it to your healthcare provider’s clinic or mail it back using the prepaid label as soon as possible (ideally within 24 hours).

From there, the laboratory will analyze your stool to look for calprotectin.

What can a stool test tell me? What can it not tell me?

Keep in mind that a fecal calprotectin test is only one type of stool test—there are a number of others that are used to diagnose a variety of conditions, including:

  • Infections (from parasites, viruses, or bacteria, which are usually diagnosed with a specific stool test called a stool culture)
  • Poor nutrient absorption and vitamin deficiencies
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Cancer

Don’t be alarmed. Needing this type of test doesn’t automatically mean you’re dealing with any of the above, and there’s no point jumping to conclusions.

Rather, this is a diagnostic step that helps medical professionals understand what’s happening in your body and what next steps will be most helpful to you. Remember, information is power.

As far as what a stool test won’t tell you, it’s primarily used to figure out what’s happening in your digestive tract, meaning it probably won’t be used for other conditions that don’t involve digestive symptoms.

This test provides a lot of valuable information for medical professionals, but it’s most helpful when the results are analyzed in conjunction with your symptoms and experiences. The body is a big puzzle, and health professionals know they need to look at all of the pieces not only on their own, but together too.

Are there other test options?

If you suspect you’re dealing with inflammatory bowel disease, it’s likely that a healthcare provider will suggest a stool test (specifically, a fecal calprotectin test) to understand more about what’s going on.

However, that’s not your only test option. Often, a stool test is used with a combination of other tests and procedures to get a more accurate picture of your symptoms and causes.

As the Mayo Clinic explains, these diagnostic tests and exams can include:

  • Lab tests: Blood tests or stool tests
  • Endoscopic procedures: Colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, upper endoscopy, capsule endoscopy, balloon-assisted enteroscopy
  • Imaging procedures: X-ray, CT scan, MRI

Exactly what tests you need will depend on your unique symptoms. A doctor will discuss your experiences and help you figure out your best next steps.

Listen, we know you’re probably never going to do cartwheels when you hear that you need to do a stool test. And, we sympathize with the fact that it’s a little uncomfortable to think about (and even more uncomfortable to talk about).

But here’s the good news: The test is completely painless and helpful. It gives you and a medical professional important information about the symptoms you’re experiencing.

So, if you’ve recently been told that a stool test is your next best step, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s completely normal—and even beneficial. You’ve got this, we promise.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash