What Happens to a Poop When You Hold It in Until It Goes Away?

Bad things. Very bad things.

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We’ve all experienced the agony of holding in a ripe poop. Maybe you’re on a date and you’re afraid of the monster broiling within; maybe you’re driving in the middle of the desert and even if you wanted to stop and poop, the only napkins you have left are covered in ketchup. Whatever the reason, you have to white-knuckle it until a reasonable bathroom appears.

But then: A miracle! That desperate urge to poop suddenly vanishes, as if it had never been, and you end up just pooping at your regular-ish time later that day (or the next morning).

So… where does it go?

Let’s start with what’s going on in there at the point where you’re clenching for dear life.

“The idea of holding it isn’t the best thing,” says Niket Sonpal, an assistant clinical professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. “When stool hits parts of the rectum, it sends you the signal saying, ‘Hey man, you’ve got to find a place to go to the bathroom and unload.’” That’s why, he explains, it’s so hard to hold in your poop in the first place. “You have to tighten the voluntary sphincters,” Sonpal explains. “In the first few hours, you’ll feel a sense of abdominal pressure. Some people describe it as abdominal cramping, whereas some people have more urgency.”

But let’s say your will power wins the battle against your voluntary sphincter, and you experience the phenomenon known as the Vanishing Poop. Where does it go?

“Your body will eventually start to impact your poop,” says Sonpal. Which, despite the urgency passing, isn’t a good thing. This poo hasn’t just magically disappeared; instead, you’re becoming constipated.

“The longer the stool stays in, the harder it gets,” says Sonpal. “At this point, you may actually start to notice a distended belly  —  the pressure builds until you can’t hold your stomach flat even if you try. As the stool gets harder in your colon, you up your risk for an uncomfortable trip to the bathroom. You may experience straining, bleeding and even small tears.”

While that all sounds terrible, Sonpal admits that it’s far from fatal. “I’ve never heard of anyone dying from holding poop, but in adults, voluntarily holding it in is just going to lead to impaction where the stool is rock-hard. And if it gets impacted enough, you might need laxatives or even manual removal to get it out.”

Obviously, it’s always nice when someone pulls out a stool for you, but not like that.