Encopresis (en-ko-PREE-sis), sometimes called fecal incontinence or soiling, is the repeated passing of stool (usually involuntarily) into clothing. Typically it happens when impacted stool collects in the colon and rectum: the colon becomes too full and liquid stool leaks around the retained stool, staining underwear. Eventually, stool retention can cause swelling (distention) of the bowels and loss of control over bowel movements.
Encopresis usually occurs after age 4, when the child has already learned to use a toilet. In most cases, soiling is a symptom of chronic constipation. Far less frequently it occurs without constipation and may be the result of emotional issues.
Encopresis can be frustrating for parents — and embarrassing for the child. However, with patience and positive reinforcement, treatment for encopresis is usually successful.
Signs and symptoms of encopresis may include:
- Leakage of stool or liquid stool on underwear, which can be mistaken for diarrhea
- Constipation with dry, hard stool
- Passage of large stool that clogs or almost clogs the toilet
- Avoidance of bowel movements
- Long periods of time between bowel movements
- Lack of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Problems with daytime wetting or bedwetting (enuresis)
- Repeated bladder infections, typically in girls
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if your child is already toilet trained and starts experiencing one or more of the symptoms listed above.
There are several causes of encopresis, including constipation and emotional issues.
Most cases of encopresis are the result of chronic constipation. In constipation, the child's stool is hard, dry and may be painful to pass. As a result, the child avoids going to the toilet — making the problem worse.
The longer the stool remains in the colon, the more difficult it is for the child to push stool out. The colon stretches, ultimately affecting the nerves that signal when it's time to go to the toilet. When the colon becomes too full, soft or liquid stool may leak out around the retained stool or loss of control over bowel movements may occur.
Some causes of constipation include:
- Withholding stool due to fear of using the toilet (especially when away from home) or because stools are painful
- Not wanting to interrupt play or other activities
- Eating too little fiber
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Drinking too much cow's milk or, rarely, an intolerance to cow's milk — though research results conflict on these issues
Emotional stress may trigger encopresis. A child may experience stress from:
- Premature, difficult or conflict-filled toilet training
- Changes in the child's life, such as dietary changes, toilet training, starting school or schedule changes
- Emotional stressors, for example, the divorce of a parent or the birth of a sibling
Encopresis is more common in boys. These risk factors may increase the chances of having encopresis:
- Using medications that may cause constipation, such as cough suppressants
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Anxiety or depression
A child who has encopresis may experience a range of emotions, including embarrassment, frustration, shame and anger. If your child is teased by friends or criticized or punished by adults, he or she may feel depressed or have low self-esteem.
Below are some strategies that can help prevent encopresis and its complications.
Help your child avoid constipation by providing a balanced diet that's high in fiber and encouraging your child to drink enough water.
Learn about effective toilet training techniques
Educate yourself on effective toilet training techniques. Avoid starting too early or being too forceful in your methods. Wait until your child is ready, and then use positive reinforcement and encouragement to help make progress. Ask your doctor about resources on toilet training.
Get early treatment for encopresis
Early treatment, including guidance from your child's doctor or mental health professional, can help prevent the social and emotional impact of encopresis. Regular follow-up visits with your doctor can help identify ongoing or recurring problems so that adjustments in treatment can be made as needed.