CHEMICAL EXAMINATION OF FECES
Chemical examination of feces is usually carried out for the following tests (Figure 845.1):
- Occult blood
- Excess fat excretion (malabsorption)
- Reducing sugars
- Fecal osmotic gap
- Fecal pH
Test for Occult Blood in Stools
Presence of blood in feces which is not apparent on gross inspection and which can be detected only by chemical tests is called as occult blood. Causes of occult blood in stools are:
- Intestinal diseases: hookworms, amebiasis, typhoid fever, ulcerative colitis, intussusception, adenoma, cancer of colon or rectum.
- Gastric and esophageal diseases: peptic ulcer, gastritis, esophageal varices, hiatus hernia.
- Systemic disorders: bleeding diathesis, uremia.
- Long distance runners.
Occult blood test is recommended as a screening procedure for detection of asymptomatic colorectal cancer. Yearly examinations should be carried out after the age of 50 years. If the test is positive, endoscopy and barium enema are indicated.
Tests for detection of occult blood in feces: Many tests are available which differ in their specificity and sensitivity. These tests include tests based on peroxidase-like activity of hemoglobin (benzidine, orthotolidine, aminophenazone, guaiac), immunochemical tests, and radioisotope tests.
Tests Based on Peroxidase-like Activity of Hemoglobin
Principle: Hemoglobin has peroxidase-like activity and releases oxygen from hydrogen peroxide. Oxygen molecule then oxidizes the chemical reagent (benzidine, orthotolidine, aminophenazone, or guaiac) to produce a colored reaction product.
Benzidine and orthotolidine are carcinogenic and are no longer used. Benzidine test is also highly sensitive and false-positive reactions are common. Since bleeding from the lesion may be intermittent, repeated testing may be required.
Causes of False-positive Tests
- Ingestion of peroxidase-containing foods like red meat, fish, poultry, turnips, horseradish, cauliflower, spinach, or cucumber. Diet should be free from peroxidase-containing foods for at least 3 days prior to testing.
- Drugs like aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs, which increase blood loss from gastrointestinal tract in normal persons.
Causes of False-negative Tests
- Foods containing large amounts of vitamin C.
- Conversion of all hemoglobin to acid hematin (which has no peroxidase-like activity) during passage through the gastrointestinal tract.
These tests specifically detect human hemoglobin. Therefore there is no interference from animal hemoglobin or myoglobin (e.g. meat) or peroxidase-containing vegetables in the diet.
The test consists of mixing the sample with latex particles coated with anti-human haemoglobin antibody, and if agglutination occurs, test is positive. This test can detect 0.6 ml of blood per 100 grams of feces.
Radioisotope Test Using 51Cr
In this test, 10 ml of patient’s blood is withdrawn, labeled with 51Cr, and re-infused intravenously. Radioactivity is measured in fecal sample and in simultaneously collected blood specimen. Radioactivity in feces indicates gastrointestinal bleeding. Amount of blood loss can be calculated. Although the test is sensitive, it is not suitable for routine screening.
Apt test: This test is done to decide whether blood in the vomitus or in the feces of a neonate represents swallowed maternal blood or is the result of bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. The test was devised by Dr. Apt and hence the name. The baby swallows blood during delivery or during breastfeeding if nipples are cracked. Apt test is based on the principle that if blood is of neonatal origin it will contain high proportion of hemoglobin F (Hb F) that is resistant to alkali denaturation. On the other hand, maternal blood mostly contains adult hemoglobin or Hb A that is less resistant.
Test for Malabsorption of Fat
Dietary fat is absorbed in the small intestine with the help of bile salts and pancreatic lipase. Fecal fat mainly consists of neutral fats (unsplit fats), fatty acids, and soaps (fatty acid salts). Normally very little fat is excreted in feces (<7 grams/day in adults). Excess excretion of fecal fat indicates malabsorption and is known as steatorrhea. It manifests as bulky, frothy, and foul-smelling stools, which float on the surface of water.
Causes of Malabsorption of Fat
- Deficiency of pancreatic lipase (insufficient lipolysis): chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis.
- Deficiency of bile salts (insufficient emulsification of fat): biliary obstruction, severe liver disease, bile salt deconjugation due to bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
- Diseases of small intestine: tropical sprue, celiac disease, Whipple’s disease.
Tests for fecal fat are qualitative (i.e. direct microscopic examination after fat staining), and quantitative (i.e. estimation of fat by gravimetric or titrimetric analysis).
- Microscopic stool examination after staining for fat: A random specimen of stool is collected after putting the patient on a diet of >80 gm fat per day. Stool sample is stained with a fat stain (oil red O, Sudan III, or Sudan IV) and observed under the microscope for fat globules (Figure 845.2). Presence of ≥60 fat droplets/HPF indicates steatorrhea. Ingestion of mineral or castor oil and use of rectal suppositories can cause problems in interpretation.
- Quantitative estimation of fecal fat: The definitive test for diagnosis of fat malabsorption is quantitation of fecal fat. Patient should be on a diet of 70-100 gm of fat per day for 6 days before the test. Feces are collected over 72 hours and stored in a refrigerator during the collection period. Specimen should not be contaminated with urine. Fat quantitation can be done by gravimetric or titrimetric method. In gravimetric method, an accurately weighed sample of feces is emulsified, acidified, and fat is extracted in a solvent; after evaporation of solvent, fat is weighed as a pure compound. Titrimetric analysis is the most widely used method. An accurately weighed stool sample is treated with alcoholic potassium hydroxide to convert fat into soaps. Soaps are then converted to fatty acids by the addition of hydrochloric acid. Fatty acids are extracted in a solvent and the solvent is evaporated. The solution of fat made in neutral alcohol is then titrated against sodium hydroxide. Fatty acids comprise about 80% of fecal fat. Values >7 grams/day are usually abnormal. Values >14 grams/day are specific for diseases causing fat malabsorption.
Test for Urobilinogen in Feces
Fecal urobilinogen is determined by Ehrlich’s aldehyde test (see Article “Test for Detection of Urobilinogen in Urine”). Specimen should be fresh and kept protected from light. Normal amount of urobilinogen excreted in feces is 50-300 mg per day. Increased fecal excretion of urobilinogen is seen in hemolytic anemia. Urobilinogen is deceased in biliary tract obstruction, severe liver disease, oral antibiotic therapy (disturbance of intestinal bacterial flora), and aplastic anemia (low hemoglobin turnover). Stools become pale or clay-colored if urobilinogen is reduced or absent.
Test for Reducing Sugars
Deficiency of intestinal enzyme lactase is a common cause of malabsorption. Lactase converts lactose (in milk) to glucose and galactose. If lactase is deficient, lactose is converted to lactic acid with production of gas. In infants this leads to diarrhea, vomiting, and failure to thrive. Benedict’s test or Clinitest™ tablet test for reducing sugars is used to test freshly collected stool sample for lactose. In addition, oral lactose tolerance test is abnormal (after oral lactose, blood glucose fails to rise above 20 mg/dl of basal value) in lactase deficiency. Rise in blood glucose indicates that lactose has been hydrolysed and absorbed by the mucosa. Lactose tolerance test is now replaced by lactose breath hydrogen testing. In lactase deficiency, accumulated lactose in the colon is rapidly fermented to organic acids and gases like hydrogen. Hydrogen is absorbed and then excreted through the lungs into the breath. Amount of hydrogen is then measured in breath; breath hydrogen more than 20 ppm above baseline within 4 hours indicates positive test.
Fecal Osmotic Gap
Fecal osmotic gap is calculated from concentration of electrolytes in stool water by formula 290-2([Na+] + [K+]). (290 is the assumed plasma osmolality). In osmotic diarrheas, osmotic gap is >150 mOsm/kg, while in secretory diarrhea, it is typically below 50 mOsm/kg. Evaluation of chronic diarrhea is shown in Figure 845.3.
Stool pH below 5.6 is characteristic of carbohydrate malabsorption.
- American Gastroenterological Association. AGA technical review on the evaluation and management of chronic diarrhea. Gastroenterology 1999;116: 1464-86.
- American Gastroenterological Association Medical Position Statement: Guidelines for the evaluation and management of chronic diarrhoea. Gastroenterology 1999;116:1461-3.
- Haque R, Huston CD, Hughes M, Houpt E, Petri, WA Jr. Amebiasis. New Engl J Med 2003;348:1565:73.