Stool tests examine samples of poo (also called faeces or bowel motions) to check for blood that may come from bowel polyps or cancer and to look for causes gastrointestinal illness.
Types of stool tests
Stool specimens are tested in the laboratory in a variety of ways. These tests are sometimes called faecal tests.
Faecal occult blood test
Faecal occult blood tests, or FOBTs, are used to test healthy people for blood that may come from polyps or bowel cancer. The test can detect tiny amounts of blood not visible to the naked eye. Anyone who has blood in their faeces would then go to have more testing to see what is the cause.
Some Australians aged between 50 and 74 years are eligible for free FOBT test through the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
For more information, call the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program Infoline on 1800 118 868.
Stool culture helps identify bacteria and parasites that might cause problems like diarrhoea. A stool culture test can also detect the presence of Helicobacter pylori bacteria, which are associated with stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Stools can also be examined for evidence of viral infections.
How do I collect samples?
Stool samples for FOBTs are easily collected in the privacy of your own home.
They need to be handled carefully to keep your hands clean and avoid passing on an infection. You also need to make sure you don't contaminate the sample with urine or toilet paper.
Collect your samples in sterile vials, which your doctor will give you. Store them in the fridge, well away from food, then take them to your doctor or to the pathology lab as soon as possible. If there's going to be a delay, talk to your doctor about it.
What do my results mean?
Around 1 in every 14 people has a positive FOBT test – that is, blood is found in their faeces. A positive result does not necessarily mean you have bowel cancer. Other conditions like polyps, haemorrhoids or inflammation can give you positive results.
But if you do have a positive result, you should contact your doctor, who might recommend other tests like a colonoscopy.
If your FOBT is all clear, that's good. But it doesn't mean you'll never develop bowel cancer. If you're over 50, you should have regular screening every 2 years.
If you have a stool culture test and it is positive, see your doctor. You might need treatment.
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Last reviewed: May 2020