GI bleeding

Alternative names
Lower GI bleeding; Gastrointestinal bleeding; Upper GI bleeding


Gastrointestinal bleeding refers to any bleeding that originates in the gastrointestinal tract, from the mouth to the large bowel. The degree of bleeding can range from nearly undetectable to acute, massive, life-threatening bleeding. Bleeding may originate from any site along the gastrointestinal tract, but is often divided into:

  • Upper GI bleeding (considered any source located between the mouth and outflow tract of the stomach)  
  • Lower GI bleeding (considered any source located from the outflow tract of the stomach to the anus, small and large bowel included)

Gastrointestinal bleeding can range from microscopic bleeding, where the amount of blood is so small that it can only be detected by laboratory testing, to massive bleeding where pure blood is passed.

It is importnant to be aware of gastrointestinal bleeding, because it may herald many significant diseases and conditions. Prolonged microscopic bleeding can lead to massive losses of iron and subsequent anemia. Acute, massive bleeding can lead to hypovolemia, shock, and even death.

Gastrointestinal bleeding can occur at any age from birth on. The degree and suspected location of the bleeding determines what tests should be performed to find the cause. Once a bleeding site is identified, numerous therapies are available to stop the bleeding.

Common Causes
Some of the possible causes of gastrointestinal bleeding include:

  • hemorrhoids  
  • duodenal ulcer  
  • gastric (stomach) ulcer  
  • bleeding diverticulum  
  • ulcerative colitis  
  • Crohn’s disease  
  • esophageal varices  
  • arterio-venous malformations  
  • nose bleed  
  • mallory-Weiss tear (tear in esophagus after vomiting)  
  • esophagitis  
  • dysentery (bloody, infectious diarrhea)  
  • ischemic bowel  
  • colon cancer  
  • intestinal polyps  
  • celiac sprue  
  • radiation injury to the bowel  
  • portal hypertensive gastropathy  
  • stomach cancer  
  • intestinal vasculitis  
  • small intestinal cancer  
  • Dieulafoy’s lesion  
  • Meckel’s diverticulum  
  • Aorto-enteric fistula  
  • cow’s milk allergy  
  • intestinal volvulus (twisted bowel)  
  • intussusception (bowel telescoped on itself)  
  • anal fissure

Home Care
There are home stool tests for microscopic blood that may be recommended for people with anemia or for colon cancer screening.

Call your health care provider if

  • You have black, tarry stools (this may be a sign of upper gastrointestinal bleeding).  
  • You have blood in your stools.  
  • You begin vomiting blood or you vomit material that looks like coffee grounds.

What to expect at your health care provider’s office

GI bleeding can be an emergency condition requiring immediate medical attention. Intravenous fluids and medications, blood transfusions, drainage of the stomach through a tube (nasogastric tube), and other measures may be required.

Once the condition is stable, a physical examination, including a detailed abdominal examination, will be performed.

Medical history questions to document GI bleeding in detail may include:

  • When did it start?  
  • Is it off and on or does it continue?  
  • What did you notice?  
  • Were there black, tarry stools or was there obvious blood in the stools?  
  • Were you vomiting blood?  
  • Did you vomit material that looks like coffee grounds?  
  • Do you have a history of peptic ulcer or duodenal ulcer?  
  • Have you ever had symptoms like this before?  
  • What other symptoms are present?  
  • Did you notice anything that you think may have caused or been associated with the bleeding?

Gastrointestinal bleeding is diagnosed by the health care provider - the person may or may not have been aware of its presence.


  • CBC, clotting tests (PT, PTT, INR), platelet count, and other laboratory tests  
  • abdominal X-ray  
  • abdominal CT scan  
  • EGD  
  • colonoscopy  
  • sigmoidoscopy  
  • small bowel enteroscopy  
  • bleeding scan (tagged red blood cell scan)  
  • angiography  
  • abdominal MRI scan  
  • capsule endoscopy (camera pill that is swallowed to see the small intestine)

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 2, 2012
by Arthur A. Poghosian, M.D.

Medical Encyclopedia

  A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | 0-9

All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.