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Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding is a sign that there is a problem in your digestive tract. Your digestive tract consists of the following organs:
GI bleeding can occur in any one of these organs. If the bleeding occurs in your esophagus, stomach, or small intestine, it is considered upper GI bleeding. Gastrointestinal bleeding in the large intestine, rectum, or anus is called lower GI bleeding. The amount of bleeding you experience can range from a very small amount of blood to a life-threatening hemorrhage. In some cases, the amount of bleeding may be so small that it only shows up in lab tests.
Different parts of the digestive tract are affected by specific conditions and there are varying causes of bleeding in different areas.
Peptic ulcers, which are open sores that appear in the lining of your esophagus, stomach, and small intestine, are a common cause of GI bleeding. Peptic ulcers are most commonly caused by a bacterial infection. Enlarged veins in your esophagus can tear and bleed as a result of a condition called esophageal varices. Tears in the walls of your esophagus can also cause GI bleeding in a condition called Mallory-Weiss tears.
In the case of lower GI bleeding, one of the most common causes is colitis. This occurs when your colon becomes inflamed. This could be caused by an infection, food poisoning, parasites, Crohn’s disease, and reduced blood flow in the colon. Hemorrhoids are another common cause of GI or rectal bleeding. A hemorrhoid is an enlarged vein in your rectum or anus. These enlarged veins can rupture and bleed, causing rectal bleeding.
There are a few things that you can look out for if you suspect that you might have GI or rectal bleeding. Your stool might become darker, like tar, if the bleeding is coming from the stomach or upper GI tract. You may pass blood from your rectum during bowel movements, which could cause you to see some blood in your toilet or on your toilet tissue. This blood is usually bright red in color. Vomiting blood is another sign that there is bleeding somewhere in your GI tract.
If you see any of these symptoms or if you have vomit that looks like coffee grounds, call your doctor immediately. GI bleeding could signal a potentially life-threatening condition and prompt medical treatment is essential. Seek treatment immediately if you experience paleness, weakness, or shortness of breath. These could be signs of severe bleeding.
Diagnosis of the underlying cause of your GI bleeding will usually start with your doctor asking you about the symptoms you’ve been experiencing and your medical history. A stool sample might be taken to check for the presence of blood, and blood tests looking for signs of anemia might be performed as well.
Upper GI bleeding is most commonly diagnosed by doing an endoscopic examination. Endoscopy is a procedure that involves the use of a small camera located atop a long, flexible endoscopic tube that your doctor places down your throat. The scope is then passed through your upper GI tract. This allows your doctor to see inside your GI tract and potentially locate the source of your bleeding. Because endoscopy is limited to the upper GI tract, an enteroscopy might be performed if the cause of your bleeding can’t be found during endoscopy. Enteroscopy is similar to endoscopy except there is usually a balloon attached to the camera-tipped tube. When inflated, this balloon allows your doctor to open up the intestine and see inside.
The determine the cause of lower GI bleeding, your doctor may perform a colonoscopy. During this test your doctor will insert a small, flexible tube with a camera attached into the rectum to view the entire length of the colon (large intestine). Air will be inserted through the tube to provide a better view. A biopsy (tissue sample) may be taken for additional testing.
Endoscopy can be useful, not only in diagnosing GI bleeding, but also for treating it. The use of special scopes with camera and a laser attachment can be used stop the bleeding. In addition, tools can be used under visualization with the scope to apply clips to the bleeding vessels to stop the bleeding.
If hemorrhoids are the cause of your bleeding, over-the-counter treatments might work for you. If you find that store-bought remedies are ineffective, your doctor might use a heat treatment to shrink your hemorrhoids. Infections are usually treated with the use of antibiotics.
Written by: Carmella Wint
Published on Jul 16, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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