Gastrointestinal Bleeding



GI bleeding has many causes.

Causes in the upper digestive tract:

  • Peptic ulcer—a sore in the lining of the stomach or part of the small intestine
  • Esophageal varices—swollen veins in the esophageal lining
  • Mallory-Weiss tears—tears in the esophageal lining
  • Gastritis—inflammation and sores in the stomach lining
  • Esophagitis—inflammation and sores in the esophageal lining
  • Benign tumors—noncancerous growths
  • Stomach arteriovenous malformations
  • Cancer in the esophagus, stomach, or small intestine

Causes in the lower digestive tract:

  • Angiodysplasia—a growth of blood vessels in the intestine
  • Diverticulum—a pouch that forms on the wall of the large intestine
  • Diverticulitis—happens when the pouch becomes inflamed
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases
  • Hemorrhoids—enlarged veins in the rectum or anus
  • Fissures—tears in the anus
  • Polyps, or cancer in the colon, rectum, or anus

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:

  • Having bleeding problems
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Long-term use of steroids, blood thinners, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or aspirin
  • Smoking
  • Prior GI or vascular surgery
  • Prior GI disease or bleeding
  • Prior ulcers
  • Prior infections, such as Helicobacter pylori



Upper and lower digestive tract bleeding may cause:

  • Black, tarry stool
  • Blood in the stool

Upper digestive tract bleeding may also cause:

  • Blood in vomit
  • Vomit that looks like coffee grounds

Sometimes, bleeding can happen quickly and be severe. This may cause:

  • Weakness
  • Light-headedness or faintness
  • Breathing problems
  • Belly pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Pale skin

Bleeding may be light and happen for a long time. This may cause a person to be tired and have problems breathing.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history.

Tests that may be done are:

  • Blood tests
  • Breath test
  • Stool test to check for blood
  • Upper GI endoscopy—a thin, lighted tube is placed in the mouth and moved into the stomach and upper part of the small intestine
  • Colonoscopy—a thin, lighted tube is placed in the anus and moved into the rectum and large intestine
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • A nasogastric tube placed through the nose and into the stomach
  • Barium x-ray—contrast material is swallowed or used as an enema to see structures
  • Radionuclide scanning—to see how blood flows through the GI tract
  • Angiography—to see the blood vessels



Treatment depends on what is causing the bleeding. Some choices are:


Medicines may need to be stopped or changed. Depending on the cause, one or more other medicines may be used to:

  • Lower the amount of acid the stomach makes
  • Treat bacterial infections
  • Lessen bleeding
  • Lessen inflammation
  • Place healthy bacteria into the GI tract


Endoscopy can also be used to stop bleeding by:

  • Injecting chemicals into the bleeding site
  • Using a heat probe, electric current, or laser to seal off the bleeding site
  • Using a band or clip to close off blood vessels


Angiography can also be used to control bleeding. Other tools are used to find the bleeding. Medicines or other materials are injected into the blood vessels to control it.


Surgery may be used when other methods fail. It may be needed to treat problems, such as uncontrolled bleeding.


To lower the risk of GI bleeding:

  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Use NSAIDs as advised.
  • Do not smoke.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.