Gastrointestinal Bleeding
En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition
Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding is bleeding in the digestive tract.

The Digestive Tract

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

The digestive tract is divided into two sections. The upper digestive tract includes the:

  • Esophagus—the muscular tube that transports food from the throat to the stomach
  • Stomach
  • Upper portion of the small intestine
The lower digestive tract includes the:

  • Lower portion of the small intestine
  • Large intestine
  • Anus
GI bleeding is a potentially serious symptom that requires care from your doctor.

Causes
GI bleeding is a symptom caused by several possible conditions.

Causes in the upper digestive tract may include:

  • Peptic ulcer—a sore in the lining of the stomach or the upper portion of the small intestine
  • Esophageal varices—abnormally swollen veins within the lining of the esophagus
  • Mallory-Weiss tears—tears in the lining of the esophagus
  • Gastritis—inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the stomach
  • Esophagitis—inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the esophagus
  • Benign tumors—abnormal tissue growth that is not cancerous
  • Cancer—cancer in the esophagus, stomach, or small intestine
Causes in the lower digestive tract may include:

Risk Factors
Factors that may increase your chance of GI bleeding include:

  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Long-term use of steroids, blood-thinning medication, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or aspirin
  • Smoking
  • Prior GI or vascular surgery
  • History of gastrointestinal disease or bleeding
  • History of ulcers
  • History of bacterial infections, such as Helicobacter pylori
Symptoms
Upper digestive tract bleeding symptoms may include:

  • Blood in vomit
  • Vomit that looks like coffee grounds
  • Black, tarry stool
  • Blood in the stool
Lower digestive tract bleeding symptoms may include:

  • Black, tarry stool
  • Blood in the stool
It may be difficult to notice small amounts of blood in the stool. Your doctor can do tests to detect this.

Sometimes, bleeding can occur suddenly and be severe. You may notice symptoms like:

  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness or faintness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Paleness
Bleeding that is light and occurs over a long period of time may make you feel tired and short of breath.

Diagnosis
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Breath test
  • Stool test to check for blood
  • Endoscopy—a thin, lighted tube inserted down the throat to examine the digestive tract and collect tissue samples
  • Colonoscopy—a thin, lighted tube inserted through the rectum and into the colon to examine the lining of the colon
  • CT scan—a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the digestive tract
  • Nasogastric aspiration—a tube placed through the nose and into the stomach removes contents to check for bleeding
  • Barium x-ray—x-ray that uses contrast material to see internal structures
  • Radionuclide scanning—the use of small amounts of radioactive material and a camera to create blood flow images of the digestive tract
  • Angiography—an x-ray of the blood vessels
Treatment
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:

Endoscopy
Endoscopy can also be used to stop bleeding. With an endoscope, your doctor can stop the bleeding by:

  • Injecting chemicals into the bleeding site
  • Using a heat probe, electric current, or laser to seal off the bleeding site
  • Using a band or clip to close off blood vessels
Angiography
Angiography, which is also used as a diagnostic tool, can control bleeding. The doctor can use angiography with other tools to locate the bleeding and inject medications or other materials into the blood vessels to control it.

If other treatment options fail, your doctor may recommend surgery.

Prevention
To help reduce your chance of gastrointestinal bleeding, take these steps:

  • Get treatment for Helicobacter pylori infection
  • Reduce your intake of alcohol or NSAIDs if possible
  • If you smoke, talk with your doctor about how you can quit



RESOURCES:
The American College of Gastroenterology

American Gastroenterological Association

CANADIAN RESOURCES:
Canadian Association of Gastroenterology


References:
Acute lower gastrointestinal bleeding. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated April 4, 2013. Accessed July 15, 2013.

Acute upper gastrointestinal bleeding. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated April 4, 2013. Accessed July 15, 2013.

Barnert J, Messmann H. Management of lower gastrointestinal tract bleeding. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2008;22(2):295-312.

Bleeding in the digestive tract. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/bleeding/. Updated March 28, 2012. Accessed July 15, 2013.

Common cancer types. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/commoncancers. Updated January 25, 2013. Accessed July 15, 2013.

Laine L, Jensen DM. Managment of patients with ulcer bleeding. Am J Gastroenterol. 2012;107(3):345-360.

Laine L, Smith R, Min K, Chen C, Dubois RW. Systematic review: the lower gastrointestinal adverse effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2006;24(5):751-767.

Loke YK, Derry S. Risk of gastrointestinal haemorrhage with long-term use of aspirin: meta-analysis. BMJ 2000;321:1183.

Wilcox CM, Alexander LN, Cotsonis GA, Clark WS. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are associated with both upper and lower gastrointestinal bleeding. Dig Dis Sci. 1997;42(5):990-997.

Last Reviewed July 2013



Health Information Library content is provided by EBSCO Publishing, fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.

 

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

 

To send comments or feedback to EBSCO's Editorial Team regarding the content please e-mail healthlibrarysupport@ebscohost.com.