Steatorrhea is the presence of more fatty particles in stool. This occurs as the result of malabsorption of fat particles by the body. Presence of fat would give it an oily appearance and the stool may smell foul. It indicates that the digestive system has not absorbed fat fully. Steatorrhea can develop due to any infection on the pancreas or biliary tract or due to any diseases on the intestine. This condition can also occur when a person takes certain drugs like orlistat or consumes excess of castor oil.
Bile is the enzyme produced by the liver which is very much essential for fat absorption. Similarly certain enzymes secreted by the pancreas are responsible for breaking down the fat particles. Any abnormality in the release of bile or pancreatic enzyme can lead to fat malabsorption. Steatorrhea can be temporary or permanent (chronic). If there is change in stool color or texture for more than a week you need to visit your doctor. Stool is the ultimate waste product expelled from your body during the process of digestion. Stool contains feces or other waste materials that cannot be absorbed by your intestine and hence excreted.
Steatorrhea is characterized by the change in color of stool and presence of oily particles in it. The color of the feces can be white or grayish or sometimes clay colored. It would not be thick and would be bulky. Some particles of the feces would float in the water giving oily appearance on the bowl.
Stool would not be flushed out in full if there is excess of fat in it. It would stick on the corners of the toilet bowl due to its greasy nature. For some people steatorrhea would cause abdominal cramps, bloated sensation and excess of gas discharge from the intestine. In rare cases, it would cause diarrhea, bloody discharge in stool and foul smelling foul. Any changes in the routine diet can cause temporary steatorrhea.
Numbers of factors are responsible for causing steatorrhea. It can develop if there is any change in the normal diet or due to infection on the intestine. Often the symptoms would resolve within few days if the cause is temporary. Bacterial or viral infection of the intestine, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, food intolerance and ulcerative colitis and bariatric surgery can cause steatorrhea.
Any change in the secretion of bile and biliary tract like biliary stricture, biliary atresia, biliary cancer and presence of gallstones can cause this problem. Problems in the pancreas like cystic fibrosis, pancreatic lipase deficiency and pancreatic cancer would cause steatorrhea.
Sometimes, steatorrhea can be the warning signal of underlying disease. Not taking prompt treatment can result in permanent damage. In severe cases it can lead to anemia, growth retardation in children, frequent infections on the intestine, poor nutrition, loss of weight and permanent loss of part of intestine.
Simple stool analysis is made for confirming the presence of fat particles in the stool. Your doctor would ask for additional symptoms like abdominal pain and gastric problems to determine the root cause of the problem. He would order of additional tests that include imaging test also.
Treatment for steatorrhea depends on the cause. If the problem is due to bacterial infection you will be given antibiotics to treat intestinal infection. Any change in the biliary tract and pancreas will be checked to give suitable treatment since this can also cause steatorrhea. Before starting the treatment the doctor should find out the primary cause of the problem. For a person with pancreatitis suitable pancreatic enzyme will be supplemented through medications.
Lifestyle Changes :
Modify your diet as per the instructions of your doctor and include less of fat particles. Gluten free diet is effective in controlling the symptoms if the person has celiac disease. Iron deficiency or vitamin deficiency can be treated with suitable supplements in the daily diet. For anemic patients the doctor would suggest including folic acid supplement. Quit drinking or at least reduce the consumption of alcohol.
Avoid taking too much of fatty foods and oily items. Stick to the healthy diet regimen and control the quantity of drinking to prevent steatorrhea.