Description, Causes and Risk Factors:

Passage of fat in large amounts in the feces, due to failure to digest and absorb it; occurs in pancreatic disease and the malabsorption syndromes.

Steatorrhea is the medical term for fat in stool. Fat in the stool can cause bulky stool that floats, has an oily or greasy appearance, and smells foul. Fat in the stool is fat that the digestive tract was unable to absorb. Temporary steatorrhea may result from dietary changes or intestinal infections. Steatorrhea that is persistent may result from diseases of the biliary tract, pancreas, or intestines.

Fat absorption is dependent upon bile (which is produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder), pancreatic lipases (enzymes that break down fat), and normal intestine function. Absence of bile is often due to blockage of the biliary tract and can result in pale colored fatty stool and jaundice. Absence of pancreatic lipases is uncommon, but can occur as a result of a diseased pancreas, cystic fibrosis, or an abnormality that is present at birth.

Inflammation of the lining of the intestines, which may occur with conditions such as ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the colon and rectum), Crohn's disease (inflammation of the bowels), and celiac disease (a severe sensitivity to gluten in the diet), can interfere with absorption of fats. Also, fat absorption may be affected by surgical removal of a portion of the intestines.

Often, steatorrhea is a short-lived problem related to diet or infection; however, if it lasts for more than a couple of weeks, becomes more severe, or is accompanied by other symptoms, it may be due to a more serious condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have bloody stool, black or tarry stool, stool with pus, severe abdominal pain or cramping, or high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit).

If your steatorrhea is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Temporary steatorrhea may result from dietary changes or intestinal infections. Steatorrhea that is persistent may result from diseases affecting the biliary tract, pancreas, or intestines.

Intestinal causes of steatorrhea

Steatorrhea may be caused by conditions affecting the intestines including:

    Bacterial, parasitic or viral infection of the gastrointestinal tract.

  • Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage).

  • Food intolerances (difficulty digesting certain foods without the symptoms of a food allergy).

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis).

  • Short-bowel syndrome (shortening of the intestine).

Biliary tract causes of steatorrhea

Steatorrhea can also be caused by diseases of the biliary tract including:

    Biliary atresia (condition present at birth that involves failure of development of the bile ducts).

  • Biliary stricture (narrowing of the common bile duct, the tube that carries bile from the liver and gallbladder to the intestines).

  • Cholangiocarcinoma (cancer of the biliary tracts or gallbladder).

  • Gallstones.

Causes of steatorrhea related to the pancreas

Steatorrhea can also be caused by conditions that affect the pancreas including:

    Congenital pancreatic lipase deficiency (an abnormality of lipase production in the pancreas that is present at birth).

  • Cystic fibrosis (genetic disorder that interferes with lung and pancreatic function)

  • Pancreatic cancer.

  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).


Symptoms are often related to the nature of stools. This section covers the symptoms observed commonly in this condition.

    Large, greasy and malodorous stools.

  • These stools have oil droplets in them. Anal leakage is a common symptom.

  • The color of the stools varies from pale to gray, this generally occurs in the event of a liver disorder.

  • Floating stools which are difficult to flush is a common symptom

  • Weight loss and fatigue can be one of the symptoms.

  • Fecal incontinence is often observed.


Doctors normally detect this condition by a combination of physical observation of the symptoms and lab tests. A Sudan III test of the stools is usually carried out to detect the presence of fats. Steatorrhea is affirmed in a person who excretes 7 gms of fat after consuming 100 gms of fat on a daily basis.

If the doctor finds it difficult to detect the exact cause of steatorrhea tests like D-xylose absorption examination, Blood smear examination, Upper GI series, CBC and Urinalysis may be carried out. These Steatorrhea investigations help find out if the person is suffering from any underlying disease like Cystic Fibrosis.


Treatment of steatorrhea generally depends on curing the underlying health condition. Usually, pancreatic enzyme supplements are used to treat steatorrhea problems in patients. These enzymes decompose in the small intestine and restore normalcy into the pancreas. The digestive system regains its capability to dissolve fatty components and Steatorrhea disappears within a week.


If there is no improvement in the condition, some other enzyme supplement should be applied for treatment. Symptoms usually start going away in a few days in patients of Steatorrhea and weight gain may happen sometime later.

Reducing fat components in diet can help keep the symptoms under control. Sufferers of Celiac Disease can give Gluten-free diet a try. In patients of steatorrhea diet should remain as free of fat as possible.

If steatorrhea is found to be a result of heavy drinking, alcohol intake should be severely reduced. Even normal people should cut down their alcohol consumption for a better health.

NOTE: The above information is for processing purpose. The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care.


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