bleeding in digestive tract

What causes bleeding in the digestive tract?

Bleeding in the digestive tract is always a serious matter and can be the result of various conditions. Some causes can be life-threatening, but most conditions can be cured or controlled, such as hemorrhoids and ulcers. If bleeding occurs in the digestive tract, it is critical to find the source of the bleeding. Bleeding can occur anywhere in one or more areas of the gastrointestinal system, consisting of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon), rectum, and anus. The bleeding can be hidden (occult or not visible to the human eye), but stool tests can identify it. Depending on whether the location of the bleeding is higher or lower in the tract, the blood can vary from black or tarry to bright red.

The longer the blood takes to exit, the darker it will be.

What causes bleeding in the digestive tract?

In the esophagus, bleeding can result from several conditions:

Esophagitis can occur in the lower end of the esophagus. The esophagus can become inflamed by the acidic contents of the stomach which enter the esophagus when the lower esophageal sphincter muscle malfunctions. This condition is often associated with heartburn and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).

  • Enlarged veins are another condition in the esophagus. These veins at the lower end of the esophagus can rupture and cause extensive bleeding. It is often caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Mallory-Weiss syndrome is a tear which has happened to the lining of the esophagus. Vomiting is frequently the cause, but hiatal hernias, coughing, or childbirth can be factors, too.
  • Cancer of the esophagus can cause bleeding.
    • In the stomach, infections, ulcers, and inflammations (gastritis) can lead to bleeding: 

    • Infections can be caused by Helicobacter pylori bacteria and medicines, such as aspirin and NSAIDS (medications used for muscular and joint pain). High levels of H. pylori bacteria can be identified in blood tests.
    • Ulcers or gastritis can develop from the irritated lining of the stomach. Acute or chronic ulcers can erode through blood vessels to cause massive bleeding. Stress ulcers can be caused by burns, head injuries, shock, extensive surgery, or cancer.
    • Benign tumors or cancer of the stomach may bleed.
    • In the small intestine, bleeding is often caused by duodenal ulcers and inflammations:

    • Ulcers can be found in the upper part of the small intestine called the duodenum. They can result from H. pylori bacteria or medications such as aspirin, aspirin-containing medicines, and NSAIDS.
    • Crohn’s disease can cause inflammation in the small intestine as well as in other parts of the gastrointestinal tract. It often affects the lower end of the small intestine called the ileum where it can lead to bleeding.
    • Cancer of the small intestine is a possibility
    • In the large intestine (colon), benign growths may develop or inflammations can produce bloody diarrhea:

      • Benign growths or polyps can cause bleeding, which may be occult (hidden) and identifiable in stool tests, or visible bleeding. During endoscopic exams, these growths can be removed since they are believed to lead to cancer of the colon.
      • Inflammations can be another cause of extensive bleeding in the colon. Intestinal infections, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and diverticular disease can all inflame the walls of the colon.
      • Cancer of the colon is the third most common form of cancer in the United States. It usually develops from polyps which can be removed in a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy exam. People over the age of 50 are recommended to have colorectal endoscopic exams to identify colon cancer in its early stages when it is most curable.
      • Abnormalities in blood vessels may develop as people age, which can bleed.

    Written by Joy Seeman

    © 2009 Hemorrhoid Information Center

    Bleeding in the Digestive Tract. (2004, November). Retrieved September 25, 2009, from National Digestive Disease Clearinghouse:
    Digestive Basics–Bleeding in the Digestive Tract. (2004, February 6). Retrieved September 25, 2009, from
    Mohan, M. D. , Venkat. (2008, September 13). Bleeding in the Digestive Tract. Retrieved September 24, 2009, from WebMD:

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