Bleeding in the digestive tract is a symptom of a disease rather than a disease itself. Bleeding can occur as the result of a number of different conditions, some of which are life threatening. Most causes of bleeding are related to conditions that can be cured or controlled, such as ulcers or hemorrhoids. The cause of bleeding may not be serious, but locating the source of bleeding is important.
The digestive or gastrointestinal (GI) tract includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine or colon, rectum, and anus. Bleeding can come from one or more of these areas, that is, from a small area such as an ulcer on the lining of the stomach or from a large surface such as an inflammation of the colon. Bleeding can sometimes occur without the person noticing it. This type of bleeding is called occult or hidden. Fortunately, simple tests can detect occult blood in the stool.
Common causes of GI Bleeding
In the esophagus: inflammation (esophagitis), enlarged veins (varices), tear (Mallory-Weiss syndrome), cancer
In the stomach: ulcers, inflammation (gastritis), cancer
In the small intestine: duodenal ulcer, inflammation (inflammatory bowel disease)
In the large intestine (colon) and rectum: hemorrhoids, infections, inflammation (ulcerative colitis), colorectal polyps, colorectal cancer, diverticular disease
Symptoms of GI Bleeding
The signs of bleeding in the digestive tract depend upon the site and severity of bleeding. If blood is coming from the rectum or the lower colon, bright red blood will coat or mix with the stool. The stool may be mixed with darker blood if the bleeding is higher up in the colon or at the far end of the small intestine. When there is bleeding in the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum, the stool is usually black or tarry. Vomited material may be bright red or have a coffee-grounds appearance when one is bleeding from those sites. If bleeding is occult, the patient might not notice any changes in stool color.
If sudden massive bleeding occurs, a person may feel weak, dizzy, faint, short of breath, or have crampy abdominal pain or diarrhea. Shock may occur, with a rapid pulse, drop in blood pressure, and difficulty in producing urine. The patient may become very pale. If bleeding is slow and occurs over a long period of time, a gradual onset of fatigue, lethargy, shortness of breath, and pallor from the anemia will result. Anemia is a condition in which the blood's iron-rich substance, hemoglobin, is diminished.
How Bleeding is Treated
Endoscopy is the primary diagnostic and therapeutic procedure for most causes of GI bleeding.
Active bleeding from the upper GI tract can often be controlled by injecting chemicals directly into a bleeding site with a needle introduced through the endoscope. A physician can also cauterize, or heat treat, a bleeding site and surrounding tissue with a heater probe or electrocoagulation device passed through the endoscope. Laser therapy is useful in certain specialized situations.
Once bleeding is controlled, medicines are often prescribed to prevent recurrence of bleeding. Medicines are useful primarily for H. pylori, esophagitis, ulcer, infections, and inflammatory bowel disease. Medical treatment of ulcers, including the elimination of H. pylori, to ensure healing and maintenance therapy to prevent ulcer recurrence can also lessen the chance of recurrent bleeding.
Removal of polyps with an endoscope can control bleeding from colon polyps. Removal of hemorrhoids by banding or various heat or electrical devices is effective in patients who suffer hemorrhoidal bleeding on a recurrent basis. Endoscopic injection or cautery can be used to treat bleeding sites throughout the lower intestinal tract.
Endoscopic techniques do not always control bleeding. Sometimes angiography may be used. However, surgery is often needed to control active, severe, or recurrent bleeding when endoscopy is not successful.
This informational material is taken from resources by AstraZeneca LP and Caremark, Inc., as well as the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Please see the Contact Us page for street maps.
Click here to Request an Appointment.
Go Back to Services