Although it may sound weird to talk about our poop, changes in our stool’s appearance can be important.
A change in stool color, consistency, frequency, or appearance may signal an underlying problem—but not always.
Floating stools can be a result of a healthy, high-fiber diet (which is a good thing).
However, in some cases, floating stools can be a result of an underlying condition or infection, especially if the stools are also greasy or fatty in appearance.
Understanding the possible causes of floating stools can help you determine when to seek medical attention.
In this article, we’ll go over the possible causes of floating stools, other symptoms that might present, and when you should reach out to a healthcare provider.
Should Poop Float or Sink?
Stool appearance can be an important indicator of overall bowel health, and good bowel health can support a healthy digestive tract and body.
The color and appearance of a healthy stool will vary somewhat from person to person.
Generally, healthy stools are usually brown or brownish-green in color and well-formed, and they usually sink when passed into the toilet.
However, floating stools aren’t always an indication of an underlying medical condition or infection.
Causes of Floating Stool
In most cases, floating stool is a result of your diet.
But there are other causes of floating stool that we will review here.
Fiber consumption and gas
A high-fiber diet can produce more gas during digestion as a result of increased bacterial fermentation.
When gas gets trapped in waste, it can cause stools to float.
Floating stool can also be a sign of an infection.
Stomach infections that can cause floating stool include giardiasis and those caused by E. coli.
Some gastrointestinal (GI) disorders that affect the small intestines, like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and functional dyspepsia, can also cause floating stools.
If you’re experiencing floating stool alongside other symptoms, like stomach pain, diarrhea, or constipation, reach out to your provider to determine whether a GI disorder may be the cause.
Another possible cause of floating stool is malabsorption.
If there is too much fat in your stool, it can mean that waste is moving through your digestive system without being properly absorbed.
Malabsorption can make it difficult for the gastrointestinal tract to absorb fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and other trace elements.
Malabsorption can happen as a result of dysfunction in the small intestine, pancreas, or gallbladder.
Symptoms of malabsorption include ongoing or chronic diarrhea, unintentional weight loss despite a regular and consistent diet, stomach pain, gassiness, bloating, and greasy, bulky, foul-smelling stools that float.
There are a plethora of diseases that can cause malabsorption, so it’s always a good idea to get an exam with your provider if you have concern for malabsorption.
Problems with the pancreas technically lie within the malabsorption category, but they deserve being discussed in further detail.
Pancreatic issues can lead to fat malabsorption and greasy, smelly, floating stools.
For example, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) can lead to bulky, pale, and foul-smelling, oily stools that tend to float and can be challenging to flush.
Though rare, pancreatic cancer can also cause light-colored or greasy stools that might float due to pancreatic enzymes that can’t get through to the intestines to help break down fats.
Other medical problems
Other medical conditions can cause fatty, floating stools, including bile acid deficiency and diseases that affect the small intestines, like tropical sprue, Whipple disease, and lymphoma.
Sometimes, greasy, floating stools caused by a medical condition may also be accompanied by other symptoms, such as chronic diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, bloating, and weight loss.
If you eat a high-fiber diet and have occasional or regular floating stools without any other symptoms, there is likely no need for treatment.
If having fewer floating stools is important to you, you can discuss reducing your fiber intake with your healthcare provider.
However, if you’re experiencing additional symptoms or the change to floating stools is sudden and without an accompanying change in a high-fiber diet, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider to determine the cause and develop a treatment plan.
Treatment options will vary depending on the exact cause of your floating stools and other individual health factors.
When to See a Medical Provider
In most cases, having an occasional floating stool is not cause for concern.
However, if you’re in pain or experiencing other symptoms, it’s important to speak to a medical professional as soon as possible.
Symptoms that should warrant medical attention include:
- Blood in stool
- Black, tarry stools
- Stool that is very light or pale in color
- Floating stools that appear greasy or fatty
- Unintentional weight loss
- Very dark-colored urine
- Fast or rapid heartbeat
- Swollen abdomen
- Slow reflexes
- Severe, persistent stomach pain or stomach pain that begins in the upper abdomen and spreads to the back or lasts for several days
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
It happens. (2017.)
Fecal fat. (n.d.)
Malabsorption Syndromes. (2021.)
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer. (2019.)