Encopresis is the passage of stool in places other than the toilet. It is most often an involuntary action. Encopresis is often called stool soiling because of the stains left on underwear.
Accidents are normal in infants and toddlers until they learn bowel control. It is considered abnormal in children aged 4 years and older.
Encopresis may be caused by a variety of conditions such as:
- When a large amount of hard, dry stool is filling the rectum, over time the child becomes unable to recognize the sensation of fullness and the need to go to the bathroom.
- Liquid stool may leak around the hard mass of stool, causing staining of the underwear.
- May be associated with a diet low in fiber and fluids, and lack of exercise
- Poor toilet training or refusal to use the toilet for bowel movements
- Emotional problems
- Organic causes (rare)—result of problems or malformations in the intestines
This condition is more common in males. It is also more common in children with emotional problems such as:
Risk factors include:
- Passage of firm stool that causes a painful tear or fissure at the opening of the anus
- Children who have suffered sexual abuse (according to some researchers)
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The main symptom is the accidental passage of stool, usually into the underwear. Other symptoms may include:
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt
If associated with constipation your child may have:
- Infrequent bowel movement
- Pain or bleeding with defecation
- Abdominal pain
- Bed wetting
Parents are often unaware that their child is constipated. However, they may see their child forcibly holding stool when they have the urge to move their bowels. Your child may also be unwilling to use the toilet in certain locations. These descriptions of stool holding are important for the doctor to know about.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Call the doctor if your child has stool staining in his underwear. The doctor can help find the underlying cause.
You will be asked about your child's symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will also be done. The diagnosis can usually be made this way. A rectal exam may reveal the presence of a large quantity of hard, dry stool in the rectum
To make help a diagnosis, the doctor may order imaging tests such as:
- Abdominal x-ray —may show excessive stool in the rectum
- Other imaging tests to look for organic causes if the constipation is not relieved with treatment or if your child passes blood with their stool
Treatments will depend on the cause of soiling. As a parent, it is important that you do not shame your child. Treatment will include some or all of these:
Enemas and laxatives may be recommended if constipation is a problem. It will help to clean out your child's bowel. These treatments are only used short term.
Your doctor may recommend:
- Short-term treatment with laxatives.
- Long-term treatment (up to one year) with stool softeners. This can make it easier for your child to pass stool. It may also decrease your child's reluctance to pass stool.
Mild constipation can be prevented through simple dietary changes. To help prevent constipation, encourage your child to:
- Eat a healthful diet that is high in fiber.
- Drink plenty of liquids.
Help your child learn when to use the toilet. For example, encourage your child to go to the bathroom at regular times during the day.
Keep positive. Consider rewards for your child for keeping their clothes clean and using the toilet.
Counseling may be needed if your child:
- Has severe problems with toilet training
- Has emotional problems, including family problems
- Is experiencing shame, guilt, or low self-esteem due to fecal incontinence
Following guidelines for toilet training may help prevent encopresis. A healthy, high-fiber diet and adequate liquid intake may also help prevent this condition.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Canadian Digestive Health Foundation
Encopresis (soiling). Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/encopresis.html. Updated September 2015. Accessed January 9, 2018.
Fecal soiling. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Fecal-Soiling.aspx. Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed January 9, 2018.
Fecal incontinence in children (encopresis). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T900450/Fecal-incontinence-in-children-encopresis. Updated September 28, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2016.
Stool soiling and constipation in children. Family Doctor—American Family Physician website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/stool-soiling-and-constipation-in-children. Accessed January 9, 2018.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daus Mahnke, MD Last Updated: 12/20/2014