Overview: A gastrointestinal (GI) bleed or hemorrhage may be a symptom of a digestive tract disorder, or the side effect of a medication. A GI bleed can happen in the upper or lower digestive tract and can range in severity, from mild and non-threatening to fatal.
There are a number of risk factors that may trigger bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract, depending on where it occurs. In the upper digestive tract, a bleed could be caused by an ulcer, inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis), esophageal or stomach cancers or tears in the stomach or esophagus (Mallory-Weiss tear). A bleeding event in the lower GI tract, which includes the colon, rectum and anus, can be caused by intestinal polyps, colon or rectal cancers, pockets in the wall of the colon (diverticulosis), inflammatory bowel disease, abnormal blood vessels in the GI tract (angiodysplasia) or infectious diarrhea.
A gastrointestinal hemorrhage can also be the result of certain blood-thinning medications, such as Plavix (clopidogrel) and Pradaxa (dabigatran). These medications may have similar complications, but they are meant to for two different patient populations. Both drugs are approved to reduce the risk of blood clot stroke and heart attack, but Plavix is given to patients who have had a history of these conditions while Pradaxa is prescribed for patients with atrial fibrillation. As these anticoagulants thin the blood, they may also increase the risk of bleeding events such as gastrointestinal hemorrhages. Pradaxa, which has only been on the US market for two years, has no antidote for this effect.
According to Emedicinehealth.com, signs of gastrointestinal bleeding include:
- Stools appear dark and tarry
- Blood in the feces
- Bloody vomit
- Vomit has “coffee grounds” appearance
- Fatigue, weakness or shortness of breaths
If you think you are suffering from a gastrointestinal bleed, it’s important to see a physician. A GI hemorrhage can be a life-threatening, so call 911 immediately if you think you have a medical emergency.
In diagnosing a GI bleed, the doctor will most likely take a stool sample and test for a blood count. This will help indicate if and how much you are bleeding. The physician may also perform an endoscopy, which uses a flexible instrument inserted into the mouth or rectum to view the problem area. Other potential techniques include X-rays, angiography or radionuclide scanning.