What is Steatorrhea?

The presence of fat in stool is medically termed as steatorrhea. It is defined as a disorder characterized by malabsorption of fats at the time of digestion. Such fat in stool is that which could not be absorbed by the digestive tract. Fat in feces or steatorrhea may be marked by floating bulky stools that smell bad and appear greasy or oily.

Infections of the intestines or dietary changes may cause temporary instances of steatorrhea. Chronic or prolonged instances may occur due to conditions of the pancreas, biliary tract, or the intestines.

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  • Inflammation of the intestinal wall or lining which tends to occur with varied digestive system diseases like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease etc., may hamper the process of fats absorption during digestion. Surgical removal of a section of the intestinal tract can also adversely affect the absorption of fats.
  • It may be noted that absorption of fat is dependent on a fluid secreted by liver and stored in gallbladder, i.e., bile, as well as normal intestinal functioning and pancreatic lipases. Bile deficiency or lack of it can occur due to biliary tract blockage; it is marked by symptoms like jaundice and pale colored steatorrhea. Pancreatic lipases deficiency or absence is rare, but can result from conditions like cystic fibrosis, pancreatic diseases or defects, and/or congenital pancreatic anomalies.

Short-term or temporary cases of steatorrhea are not serious. However, persistent cases which last for 2 weeks or more, of if the accompanying symptoms become severe, then it may be an indication of some serious underlying condition which need to be medically treated. Emergency care is needed if steatorrhea occurs along with tarry or black stools, bloody stool, high fever, and extreme abdominal cramping or pain.

Symptoms accompanying steatorrhea

Depending on the underlying condition that is causing steatorrhea, fatty stools may be accompanied by the below listed signs and symptoms:

  • Steatorrhea related symptoms indicative of a life-threatening condition include changes in the level of alertness or conscious like unresponsive, fainting, or passing out; high fever with body temperature of over 101 F; red or black blood in stool with a tarry texture; pain in chest, increased pressure in chest, tightness in chest, and/or palpitations; increased abdominal rigidity; breathing or respiratory difficulties like breathlessness, labored breathing, or breathing problems; and sharp and sudden pain in abdomen or intense pain in abdomen.
  • Steatorrhea associated symptoms affecting the digestive tract include abdominal distention, swelling, or bloating; pain or cramps in the abdomen; bloody stool, wherein the blood is black, reddish, or tarry textured; the stool may emit a putrid smell; nausea which may occur with or without vomiting; and gas, diarrhea, and pale-colored feces.
  • Steatorrhea linked symptoms affecting body systems other than the digestive tract includesudden weight loss, dark urine, itching skin, cough, frequent infections, and jaundice marked by yellowing of the eyes and skin.

As steatorrhea can occur as a symptom of serious conditions, untreated instances can result in permanent damage and severe health complications, as listed below:

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  • Failure to grow and thrive in children and infants
  • Anemia, i.e., low RBC count
  • Frequent episodes of opportunistic or serious infections
  • Intestinal blockages, intestinal wall rupture
  • Growth issues in children
  • Reduced appetite, diarrhea, and/or vomiting may result in poor nutrition
  • Spread of infections
  • Metastasis of cancer
  • Surgical remove of certain sections of the digestive tract because of some cancerous condition or severe infection.

Causes of steatorrhea

Temporary or short-term causes of steatorrhea are usually caused due to intestinal infections or changes in the diet. Severe or chronic cases of steatorrhea are often cause due to diseases of the pancreas, biliary tract, and/or intestinal system. Some of the common causes of steatorrhea are listed below:

  • Steatorrhea caused due to disorders that affect the biliary tract include gallstones; biliary stricture, i.e., constriction of common bile duct which transfers bile from the gallbladder and liver to the bowels; biliary atresia, a congenital condition marked by deficient formation of the bile ducts; and cholangiocarcinoma, i.e., malignant tumors affecting the gallbladder or biliary tracts.
  • Steatorrhea caused due to disorders that affect the intestines include bariatric surgery or weight loss surgery; parasitic, viral, bacterial infection of the gastrointestinal system/tract; celiac disease, a condition marked by increased gluten sensitivity marked by intestinal damage caused by intake of wheat or other gluten grains; ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and other inflammatory bowel diseases; food intolerance, i.e. occurrence of allergic reactions after intake of certain foods like dairy, etc.; and/or short-bowel syndrome, i.e., intestinal tract shortening.
  • Steatorrhea caused due to disorders that affect the pancreas include pancreatic inflammation or pancreatitis; pancreatic cancer; cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that hampers pancreatic and lung functioning; and congenital pancreatic lipase deficiency, a congenital condition marked by lowered ability of the pancreas to produce lipase.

Steatorrhea pictures

steatorrhea pictures

steatorrhea floating poop

Treatment of steatorrhea

Treatment of steatorrhea is dependent on the underlying cause. Hence, all patients need to visit a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

  • For example, bile deficiency caused by liver disorders and bile duct obstructions may treated with dietary changes, medications, and/or surgery.
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