What You Need to Know About Colon Polyps

Medically Reviewed By Saurabh Sethi, M.D., MPH
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Colon polyps, also called colorectal polyps, are growths that develop in the lining of the colon and rectum. While most polyps are not cancerous, some may become cancerous over time.

Colon polyps develop more frequently in males and older adults and may occur in up to 40% of adults.

Read on to learn more about the causes, types, symptoms, and treatments for colon polyps.

What are the causes of colon polyps?

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Health experts do not fully understand what causes colon polyps. A combination of genetic and environmental factors may result in colon polyps.

These factors trigger the overgrowth of cells in the lining of the colon. In some cases, the cells become cancerous.

What are the types of colon polyps?

Neoplastic and non-neoplastic are the two main types of colon polyps.

Neoplastic polyps

Neoplastic polyps have the potential to become cancerous. They can be subdivided into serrated and adenomatous types. Adenocarcinomas, the most common form of colon cancer, typically begin as a precancerous or adenomatous polyp.

Non-neoplastic polyps

Non-neoplastic polyps typically do not become cancerous. The subtypes of non-neoplastic polyps include:

  • hyperplastic polyps
  • juvenile polyps
  • hamartomas
  • inflammatory pseudopolyps

Doctors may also use specific terms to describe the shape of polyps:

  • flat
  • depressed, meaning the polyp appears to be indented
  • sessile, meaning no stalk is present
  • pedunculated, meaning a stalk is present

What are the symptoms of colon polyps?

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), most cases of colon polyps do not cause any symptoms. As a result, many people may not realize that they have them. Doctors typically find colon polyps on screening exams, such as a colonoscopy.

Common symptoms of colon polyps

Colon polyps can cause symptoms such as:

  • Blood in the stool: This can appear as streaks on the stool or make the stool look black and tarry. However, you may not always be able to see blood in the stool. Doctors can use a test to find blood you can’t see.
  • Rectal bleeding: This often appears as blood on toilet paper.
  • Fatigue: This is due to anemia from a bleeding polyp.

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, polyps can cause serious symptoms. Seek prompt medical care if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • abdominal pain or painful cramping, which can result if a large polyp is partially obstructing or blocking the bowel
  • change in bowel habits, including diarrhea and constipation lasting longer than a week, which can also occur with large polyps blocking the bowel

These symptoms, including potentially serious ones, can also be caused by other conditions. See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of them. Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step in resolving the problem.

In general, the earlier you seek a diagnosis and treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be.

How do doctors diagnose colon polyps?

To diagnose colon polyps, doctors may perform a physical examination and ask about your medical history. They may also order certain tests to confirm a diagnosis, such as:

  • Colonoscopy: To perform a colonoscopy, your doctor will use a narrow tube with a light and a camera to examine the inside of your colon and rectum.
  • Virtual colonoscopy: This type of colonoscopy uses X-rays to generate images of your colon and rectum.
  • Lower gastrointestinal series: To perform this test, your doctor will have you swallow a chalky liquid that will make your large intestine clear on an X-ray.

What are the treatments for colon polyps?

The main treatment for colon polyps is removal. Doctors can often remove polyps in a procedure called a “polypectomy” during a colonoscopy screening exam.

In rare cases, large polyps may require multiple colonoscopies or surgery to remove them.

After removal, a lab will examine the polyp to determine whether it’s cancerous, precancerous, or benign. The results can influence how often you need screening in the future.

What are the potential complications of colon polyps?

Colon polyps are not life threatening. However, some types of polyps have the potential to become cancerous.

Early diagnosis and prompt removal of colon polyps are essential to preventing colon cancer. The less time a colon polyp has to grow in your intestine, the less likely it is to become cancer. And the earlier your doctor finds a cancerous polyp, the more likely treatment will be successful.

What are the risk factors for colon polyps?

Although the exact cause of colon polyps is unknown, many factors can increase your risk of developing them. Not all people with risk factors will get colon polyps.

Risk factors for colon polyps include:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), certain genetic syndromes can also increase the risk of colon polyps developing, including Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis.

Can you prevent colon polyps?

You may be able to lower your risk of colon polyps by changing lifestyle-related risk factors, such as:

  • eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • moderating your alcohol intake
  • maintaining a moderate body weight
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • treating and controlling any underlying conditions, such as IBD and type 2 diabetes

If you have any risk factors for colon polyps, talk with your doctor. You may need to begin colon cancer screening earlier or screen more frequently.

People at average risk can begin screening at age 45. Finding colon polyps early is an effective way to prevent complications, including colon cancer.

Other frequently asked questions

These are a few other common questions about colon polyps. Saurabh Sethi, M.D., M.P.H., has reviewed the answers.

How long does it take a polyp to turn into colon cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, it typically takes colon polyps many years to become cancerous.

At what age do colon polyps develop?

Colon polyps are more likely to develop in adults, with researchers estimating that only 6% of children without lower gastrointestinal bleeding are affected. Colon polyps become more common with age.

What should you eat to prevent colon polyps?

The NIDDK recommends eating more fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich foods to lower your risk of colon polyps. Limiting your intake of fatty foods, red meat, and processed meats may also be beneficial.

Summary

Colon polyps are growths in the lining of the colon and rectum. While most polyps are benign, some may become cancerous over time.

Most people with colon polyps do not experience symptoms. However, when symptoms do occur, they can include rectal bleeding or bloody stool.

Doctors may be able to diagnose and remove colon polyps at the same time during a colonoscopy. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to lowering your risk of colon cancer. While most people should start their colorectal cancer screenings at age 45, your doctor may recommend starting earlier if you have certain risk factors.

Talk with your doctor to determine when to start your screenings.

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Medical Reviewer: Saurabh Sethi, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 27
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