GI Bleeding

Bleeding in the digestive tract is a symptom of a disease rather than a disease itself. A number of different conditions can cause bleeding. Most causes of bleeding are related to conditions that can be cured or controlled, such as ulcers or hemorrhoids. Some causes of bleeding may be life threatening.Locating the source of bleeding is important. Different conditions cause bleeding in the upper digestive tract and the lower digestive tract. The upper digestive tract includes the esophagus, stomach, and upper portion of the small intestine, also called the duodenum. The lower digestive tract includes the lower portion of the small intestine, large intestine, which includes the colon, rectum, and anus.

A variety of conditions can cause bleeding in the digestive tract. Causes of bleeding in the upper digestive tract include:

  • Peptic ulcers – Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infections and long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, are common causes of peptic ulcers.
  • Esohphageal varices – Varices, or enlarged veins, located at the lower end of the esophagus may rupture and bleed massively. Cirrhosis is the most common cause of esophageal varices.
  • Mallory-Weiss tears – These tears in the lining of the esophagus usually result from vomiting. Increased pressure in the abdomen from coughing, hiatal hernia, or childbirth can also cause tears.
  • Gastritis – NSAIDs and other drugs, infections, Crohn’s disease, illnesses, and injuries can cause gastritis-inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the stomach.
  • Esophagitis – Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the most common cause of esophagitis-inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the esophagus. In GERD, the muscle between the esophagus and stomach fails to close properly, allowing food and stomach juices to flow back to the esophagus.
  • Benign tumors and cancer – A benign tumor is an abnormal tissue growth that is not cancerous. Benign tumors and cancer in the esophagus, stomach, or duodenum may cause bleeding.

Causes of bleeding in the lower digestive tract include:

  • Diverticular disease – This disease is caused by diverticula-pouches in the colon wall.
  • Colitis – Infections, diseases such as Crohn’s disease, lack of blood flow to the colon, and radiation can cause colitis-inflammation of the colon.
  • Hemorrhoids or fissures – Hemorroids are enlarged veins in the anus or rectum that can rupture and bleed. Fissures, or ulcers, are cuts or tears in the anal area.
  • Angiodysplasia – Aging causes angiodysplasia-abnormalities in the blood vessels of the intestine.
  • Polyps or cancer – Benign growths or polyps in the colon are common and may lead to cancer. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States and often causes occult bleeding.

The symptoms of bleeding in the upper digestive tract include:

  • bright red blood in vomit
  • vomit that looks like coffee grounds
  • black or tarry stool
  • dark blood mixed with stool
  • stool mixed or coated with bright red blood

Signs of bleeding in the lower intestine tract include:

  • black or tarry stool
  • dark blood mixed with stool
  • stool mixed or coated with bright red blood

Sudden, severe bleeding is called acute bleeding. If acute bleeding occurs, symptoms may include:

  • weakness
  • dizziness or faintness
  • shortness of breath
  • crampy abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • paleness

A person with acute bleeding may go into shock, experiencing a rapid pulse, a drop in blood pressure, and difficulty producing urine.Light bleeding that continues for a long time or starts and stops is called chronic bleeding. If bleeding is chronic, a person may notice that fatigue, lethargy, and shortness of breath develop over time. Chronic blood loss can also lead to anemia, a condition in which the blood’s iron-rich substance, hemoglobin, is diminished.A person may not notice a small amount of bleeding in the digestive tract. This type of bleeding is called occult bleeding. Simple tests can detect occult blood in the stool.

The first step in diagnosing bleeding in the digestive tract is locating the site of the bleeding. The doctor will take the patient’s complete medical history and perform a physical examination. Symptoms such as changes in bowel habits, black or red stools, and pain or tenderness in the abdomen may tell the doctor which area of the digestive tract is bleeding.

The doctor may need to test the stool for blood. Iron supplements, bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), or certain foods such as beets can give the stool the same appearance as bleeding from the digestive tract. Stool tests can also show bleeding that is not visible to the patient.A blood test can help determine the extent of the bleeding and whether the patient is anemic. Nasogastric lavage is a procedure that can be used to determine whether the bleeding is in the upper or lower digestive tract. With nasogastric lavage, a tube is inserted through the nose and into the stomach. The contents of the stomach are removed through the tube. If the stomach contains bile and does not contain blood, the bleeding either has stopped or is likely in the lower digestive tract.