8 Most Common Questions About Fistulas - Answered! - National Association For Continence (2024)

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If you’ve been diagnosed with a fistula, you may have some questions about what it is, why you have it, and what can be done. Keep reading below for answers to some of the most common questions we receive about fistulas.


The definition of a fistula is an abnormal passageway that connects two organs or vessels that do not usually connect. The most common type of fistula is around the anus.


Within the anus, there are glands that create fluid. Sometimes these can become blocked and infected, creating what is called an abscess. This is the most common cause of a fistula, although fistulas can sometimes be caused by other conditions as well, such as Crohn’s disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or cancer.


Fistulas can be very embarrassing, as well as uncomfortable. Pain is a frequent symptom, as well as frequent abscesses, foul-smelling discharge, and painful bowel movements. Skin irritation can also develop due to infections and excess fluid being discharged.


Fistulas can cause a lot of discomfort, and if left untreated, may cause serious complications. Some fistulas can cause a bacteria infection, which may result in sepsis, a dangerous condition that can lead to low blood pressure, organ damage or even death. Luckily there are many treatments available for fistulas so that more serious complications don’t occur.


If you are noticing any symptoms of a fistula – abdominal pain, discharge, a change in your bowel habits, severe diarrhea – talk to your doctor right away. Diagnosing an external fistula is relatively simple since the doctor is able to see it. He or she may send any discharge that occurs to a lab for analysis, and may also perform blood tests to help confirm the diagnosis.

If the fistula is internal, diagnosis may be harder. Your doctor may perform an endoscope to see inside, or perform ultrasounds, CTs, or X-rays to find the fistula.


An anal fistula is a very rare sign of cancer. However, if left untreated for a long time, a fistula may lead to cancer. A fistula may also develop as a result of radiation therapy.


In some cases, fistulas may close up, but then reopen. Typically, fistulas do not heal on their own without treatment.


There are different options when treating a fistula, depending on the severity. For small fistulas, your doctor may perform an in office procedure. A fistulotomy may be done to open and drain the fistula. Your doctor may also be able to use stitches to seal the fistula, allowing it to heal.

Larger fistulas will require surgery to close them properly. Post surgery, you may be prescribed pain killers, antibiotics to prevent infections, and stool softeners to make bowel movements easier while healing.

The healing process may take just a few days or weeks if the fistula was small, but larger fistulas can take a longer time to heal, and may even require additional surgeries. Be sure to keep the area clean, especially after bowel movements. Moist pads may help this process. Taking warm baths can also be soothing and can help the treated area clean.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a fistula, don’t wait to talk to your doctor. Seek treatment and learn the options available to you – treatment may be easier than you think, and in most every case, is better than letting it go untreated.

  • All Posts, Bowel Health, Fistula, Men's Health, Most Popular, Women's Health


26 Responses

  1. What if you have no symptoms but it looks like an anal fistula?

  2. I was diagnosed with fistula long time ago. Fistulotomy was performed but non seems helping.
    So can you please assist.

  3. Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of the issues. It was really informative. Your site is useful. Many thanks for sharing!

  4. Don’t wait, like I did…

  5. I have one of these it stinks and is a deed hole also have some dirrea,what can fix this,will my insurance cover?

  6. Mine started out feeling and looking like a boil. My family dr treated it as that. Two rounds of antibiotic then referral to general surgeon. Surgeon immediately knew it was an anal fistula and said antibiotics would not help. Since then I’ve had two anal fistula surgeries. The first didn’t go as planned. Wound opened back up. Second surgery was a success. However a month out after recent checkup feeling pain again with walking sitting bending over etc.
    Do not wait to get spot looked at by a general surgeon. Demand a referral be done!

  7. How do get diagnosed? It’s been years for me, no one will listen. What kind of doctor, can I ask for a test…?

  8. I was sure I had anal fistula but a Surgeon disagree and cut around the pimple near my anus in operation room and now I feel it growing up inside at end of spine and it’s very painful. I had anal fistula years ago and surgery at Hershey medical removed it. Now I’m scared and don’t know how to save my 62 yr old life, Family doctor has me seeing a urologist on the 20th of January I’m thinking I need Gastroenterology but what do I know, It’s my body and I’m intouch with my health.

  9. I was diagnosed with fistula and have a surgery 3 years ago and now I have fistula again is it possible that fistula is a life time diseases???
    Is fistula possible to come back after 3years and is caring a large and heavy things can affect me after the operation

  10. i was diagnosed with a complex anal fistular and i haven’t had the surgery i’ve probably had this 7+ years. i have started getting pain in my groin making me limp like sharp shooting pains could it be linked? the pains are on the same side as the fistula

  11. I had this condition begin at age 23 after an abscess. I went to a GI specialist who decided against surgery. He suggested it would heal over with time and dietary changes.

    With time “flare ups” would become less frequent. Through my late 20s flares would occur 2 or more times per month. By my 30s it had reduced down to perhaps every other month and by my 40s flare ups are infrequent (once a year, if any). Hang in there. Folks who’ve never been through this will never understand the pain, discomfort and embarrassment which comes with this condition.

  12. First I thanks for help me.
    For the first time start by abscess the right side of my anus and I was pain for one moth after that I take surgery. After 10 years again back now I am chronic and every 3 month sometimes (in 6 month) I clean by surgery but I have more pain after surgery I take anti pain.
    What can I do. What con you help me

  13. Thank you so much for this blog post. However, I noticed that questions here are not answered, please help me with an answer as I am about to see a surgeon. I had anal abscess August 2021. About a week, it drained, and I felt everything was good. Then few months later, I felt it swell up again with less pain and produced pus in a week. Since then, the pus comes monthly. But since late 2022, the pus comes weekly, and Now, it comes in 4 days. 4 Days, it produces pus and drains without pain.
    What do I do please.

    What does it mean for the pus to appear and draining every 3 to 4 days?

  14. Ultrasound, CT scan or MRI can help in the diagnosis of a fistula.

  15. All of you, get a referral to a Colo-Rectal specialist who can diagnose exactly what it is and then get it dealt with. Any sign of pus? Fever? Go to the emergency room. The ER. If feces get into your system you could die within hours of septic shock, or poisoning. Please, ask your Dr for a referral to a Colo-Rectal specialist.

  16. I had a fistula that was hard to diagnose but I was persists t and my Dr believed me not the report from radiology! I had/have a vagin*l fistula where my gas would come out of the wrong end, smell awful, painful and severe fatigue, obviously not right for the body. I had surgery. It felt afterwards like a chalk like drain was left in. Its been over a year. I went to er they said I had no drain left but unfortunately all of my symptoms are back. The thought of having an eliostomy again is distressing me to no end. If I put my finger near my incision it feels like I’m pressing pins into my body and it’s not being pressed that hard. I am home with my husband who has been very Ill. I don’t want to leave him and he refuses to do what’s needed to stay non symptomatic. I feel so alone here. I moved to an affordable apt by a wonderful hospital. I’m in NY. This hospital in Suffolk is better then any in the city. My stomach looks misshapen, swollen and l have gained weight not lost it. I have pain now under ribs and around my left lower back!. I need advice.

  17. I was diagnosed with a rectal vagin*
    Fistula figuring it came from a erosion in my bladder from meshing
    They said it came from sacrocolpopexy.
    They referred me Stat how painful n since they may be repairing more how long is recovery n how hard? Ty

  18. It’d be nice if they could FIND my fistula. Test after test after test. Nothing. But there’s feces in my vagin*, and plenty of other proof there’s a fistula! So why can’t doctors find it to fix it?????? I’ve been dealing with this for FIVE YEARS. I’ll go to another country if I can find a clinic that will Fix It.

  19. Hi I did my fistula surgery to remove it 3 months after a pin hole remains and keep draining,what should I do? Is it normal?

  20. I have been sick with chronic colitis for over 2 months. I have diarrhea day and night. I’m bedfast. I went to a gastrointestinal Doctor who said until I did a colonoscopy he wasn’t sure what is wrong. I’m too weak for that CT scan showed inflamation everywhere. My question is with a fistula the stool comes out of my vagin*. If I let off gas its all up front. Last night with help transferring to my bed I stood and it ran out like pee from my vagin* but it was stool. Is this life threatening?The nurse hasn’t been believing me. Can medicine help? Any supplements? Thanks.

  21. How long does rectoviginal fistula turn to be cancer or malignant?

  22. is it possible for a fistula to dissappear?
    i have had an anal fistula for 40 years, 2 operation without success.
    6 months ago i had a pretty painful eruption and my GP prescribed a dose of antibiotics, since then i have had no pain and no seepage.
    Am i home free?

  23. Vicki see a colo- rectal surgeon asap I had the same thing going on with me and it turns out that I had really bad inflammation and all my organs were stuck together from really bad diverticulitis and my mom went through the same thing so I would go to the ER immediately because this can cause sepsis and you can die. I wish everyone a speedy recovery I had my surgery May 23,2023 and I am recovering well.

  24. I have a Fistula on my abdomen. Surgeon said it was probably a suture from an old surgery. 2 years later it surface.it was a 12 inch plastic suture. But now I still have the Fistula on my abdomen.It discharges fluids at least 10 times a day, since there is a cavity that goes down under the skin to the Fistula. Doctors won’t touch it, due to my other health issues. I am hoping it heals in 6 months. Last time it opened, it took 13 months to close.

  25. I had surgery for a spine fistula and am having chronic pain in my legs and muscles. I cannot see anything that references the same. I have had an EMG and my surgeon is referring me to a neuromuscular surgeon. Can you respond as time permits . I am a 71 year old white male.
    Thank you in advance

  26. i have had DT for over 30 years and the infection twice. now i have the access and a vagin*l fissure. going for surgery on the 23 of January 24. hopefully this will help all ma problems. i have blood and pus leaking from my vagin*l area Pain when i pass gas God help us all!!!

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