If you’ve got it, you’ll know. Believe me, you’ll know, even if you don’t know what it is called. And if you’re here looking for help with this symptom – welcome!

Anyone reading this over their breakfast, look away now. Better, come back later, when you’ve finished.

steatorrhoea - colours I have known

You may remember that some time ago I posted a picture of the Bristol stool chart. (This is in fact one of the most popular pages of this site.) I was impressed when the doctor pulled this chart out, so that I could point to the product most like that of my one-year-old daughter, before she was diagnosed. OK, I can’t resist it … here’s the image again.

But I do remember thinking at the time, that what he also needed was the equivalent of a paint chart. When I was asked what colour were her stools, I resorted to looking around the room to find something that was the approximate colour. Turned out to be the fireplace. Look at the left hand end of this bar of colour …

steatorrhoea - colours I have known

Yes – very pale, and very distinctive! But I think there’s probably a range – I’ve seen stools anywhere along this range of colours before diagnosis. After diagnosis, then the colour range has been much closer to that of the Bristol stool chart.

So what was it?

This is steatorrhoea, which is an excess of fat in faeces.

The stool may float due to trapped air. It is also pale in colour (see my paint chart!), and there may be drops of oil visible in the toilet pan after flushing.

The reference documents say it may be foul-smelling. In my experience it has an extremely strong, very distinctive and vile smell. ‘Foul-smelling’ is a very mild description …

Steatorrhoea is a classic symptom of coeliac disease. It’s not the only one, and you can have coeliac disease without this symptom, but if you have it, you should get checked out by a doctor.

Apparently, in coeliac disease the level of fat excreted is usually between 25 and 30 g per day. In case you were wondering, the normal level is about 9 g per day. And checking the level of fat in the stool is, indeed, one of the screening tests that can be run.

We dutifully collected a stool sample to be sent off to the lab all those years ago, but it must have been quite obvious from the moment I pointed at the very pale beige of the fireplace, that something wasn’t right.

OK, you can go back to your breakfast now …