What Causes Clay-Colored Stool?

Clay stool is not normal and could be a symptom of a serious medical condition. There are several diseases affecting the biliary system that can cause clay colored stool.

Healthy stool can come in several different shades of brown, which is greatly affected by diet. Stool that resembles clay or pale in color, may indicate a health issue affecting the biliary system in the body, such as a blockage of the bile ducts or another problem resulting in a lack of bile. When the digestive system is unable to properly absorb fats, stool may appear pale and greasy. 

What Causes Clay-Colored Stool?

The biliary system in the body is responsible for drainage of the pancreas, gallbladder and liver. The liver creates bile, which is stored in the gall bladder. Then the bile is secreted into the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine, as food passes through. Bile is responsible for providing the brown color of normal stool. When stool is pale rather than brown, it indicates that bile is not being made or there is a blockage between the liver and the bile ducts.

Common causes of the reduction of bile production or blockage are listed below:

1. Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis occurs when the liver becomes inflamed as a result of drinking alcohol. It usually occurs in people who have consumed alcohol heavily over a number of years, but can also affect moderate drinkers. This condition can cause liver disease or liver failure. People diagnosed with this illness must avoid alcohol. The risk of liver damage or even death will increase if people continue to drink. 


Besides grey stool, the most common symptoms include jaundice, which is the yellowing of the whites of eyes and skin, increased girth as a result of fluid accumulation and clay-colored stool. Other symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, pain and tenderness of the abdomen, and weight loss.

2. Biliary Cirrhosis

Biliary cirrhosis occurs when the bile ducts of the liver become irritated and inflamed, which blocks bile from getting to the intestines. The cause of this illness is not known and there is no known cure at present. Biliary cirrhosis is a life-threatening condition.


Some people diagnosed with this condition do not experience any symptoms. Others may have some symptoms such as dry mouth and eyes, itchy skin and fatigue. Other symptoms may include jaundice, abdominal pain, clay-colored stool, bone or muscle pain, swollen ankles and feet, high cholesterol, and osteoporosis.

3. Gallstone

Gallstones are hardened pieces of cholesterol and bile pigments that form in the gallbladder. Some causes of gallstones include diet, decreased gallbladder movement, genetics, and body weight. Gallstones can sometimes be dissolved with medication or may require surgical removal if the medication does not work or they are too large.


Most people with gallstones do not experience any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, the most common ones are inflammation of the gallbladder and biliary colic, such as intensifying abdomen pain, back pain, pain in the right shoulder, and clay-colored stool.

4. Bile Duct Cysts

A bile duct, or choledochal cyst can cause the flow of bile to be prevented. The cause of bile duct cysts is unknown. Sometimes these cysts go away on their own or they may need to be surgically removed.


Babies who are suffering from bile duct cysts may show signs of jaundice and pale stool. They may also present with a mass in the upper right side of the abdomen along with an enlarged liver. Adults may experience abdominal pain, pain in the upper or upper right quadrant, yellowing of skin or eyes, or bile duct infection.

5. Bile Duct Tumors

Bile duct tumors may be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign) that are present in the biliary system. They can cause liver inflammation and prevent or reduce the flow of bile. Bile duct tumors may need to be removed surgically. If the tumor is malignant, chemotherapy or radiation may be needed.


The most common symptom of bile duct tumor is jaundice as a result of bile obstruction. Other symptoms that may be present include weight loss and loss of appetite, itching, pain on the right side, fever, clay-colored stool and difficultly in stopping blood loss when there are breaks in the skin.

6. Biliary Stricture

Surgery to remove the gallbladder can cause biliary stricture, which refers to the narrowing of the bile ducts. This condition can be treated with a stent, which is a tube that is surgically placed inside the bile duct in order to keep it open, or with other surgery to widen the duct.


Symptoms of biliary stricture may include fever, chills, itching, jaundice, nausea and vomiting, upper right abdominal pain, and light or clay stool.

7. Side Effects from Medication

Drug-induced hepatitis refers to liver inflammation and swelling caused by medication. Medications that may cause this condition include naproxen and ibuprofen, certain antibiotics, anabolic steroids, and birth control bills.


Pale or clay-colored stool and other symptoms often go away after the medication which is causing the condition is discontinued.

8. Hepatitis A, B or C

Hepatitis refers to inflammation and swelling of the liver and is most often caused by a viral infection. Hepatitis may be chronic or acute. Viral hepatitis sometimes disappear without any treatment. However, the virus may also stay in the body and result in a chronic infection. For severe cases, your doctor will prescribe antiviral drugs to treat the infection.


In many cases, hepatitis does not cause symptoms until liver damage has already occurred. Symptoms of hepatitis include dark urine, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and weight loss, jaundice, clay-colored stool, dark urine, flu like symptoms, and fatigue.

9. Other Causes

Other causes include:

  • Sclerosing cholangitis---the scarring or inflammation of the bile ducts.
  • Birth defects---born with structural abnormalities in the biliary system that restrict bile flow.

When to See a Doctor

If you experience clay stool just occasionally, there is probably nothing to worry about. If it occurs more often, you should visit your doctor in order to be checked for a potentially serious medical condition. If your urine is darker than usual or you are jaundiced in addition to pale stool, seek immediate medical help.


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