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Colon Polyps Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Colon polyps grow in the inner lining of the large intestine (colon and rectum).

These growths are common and usually harmless, but some polyps can become cancerous. That's why it's crucial to have routine colon cancer screening exams starting at age 45.

Doctors can remove colon polyps during a screening exam.

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What Are Colon Polyps?

Doctors define colon polyps as small growths on the inner lining of the colon and rectum. Doctors may also refer to the growth as a colorectal polyp.

The colon is the longest section of the large intestine. It absorbs water and nutrients from the foods you eat, then changes the waste products that remain into stool.

The stool passes into the rectum, the end of the large intestine.

Colon polyps can occur at any age, but they're more common among older people. Some people get just one polyp, while others form more.

When should you worry about colon polyps?

Having colon polyps doesn't mean you'll get colon cancer. And since colon cancer grows slowly, catching it early means there's a good chance of curing it.

That's why doctors remove any colon polyps during screening.

There are many types of colon polyps. Adenomas are the precancerous type.

Doctors believe it takes about 10 years for a small adenoma to transform into cancer. That's why they advise a screening colonoscopy once a decade for most people over 45.

They may suggest more frequent screenings if you have a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

How common are polyps in a colonoscopy?

It's common for doctors to find polyps when they do a colonoscopy.

About 20 to 30% of adults in the U.S. get colon polyps.

What are the types of colon polyps?

Doctors classify polyps by the way they look and behave.

The types of colon polyps include:

  • Adenomatous polyp. These polyps could be cancerous or precancerous, so it's vital for doctors to remove them. They have 2 growth patterns: tubular adenoma and villous adenoma. Villous adenomas are more likely to be cancerous.
  • Hyperplastic polyp. These polyps tend to be benign (not cancerous or precancerous). Your doctor will likely remove them just to be safe.

What causes colon polyps?

Doctors aren't sure what causes colon polyps. It could be a mix of factors linked to your genes, lifestyle, and environment.

What are colon polyp risk factors and complications?

Risk factors

Risk factors for getting colon polyps include:

  • A diet high in red and processed meat, and low in fiber, fruits, and veggies.
  • Being of African American or eastern European descent.
  • Being over 45 years old.
  • Drinking more than 3 alcoholic drinks per day.
  • A family history of IBD, colon cancer, or rectal cancer.
  • Obesity.
  • Tobacco use.

Complications of colon polyps

Some colon polyps will turn into cancerous tumors. There's a chance you could get colon cancer if you don't remove polyps.

How can I reduce my risks of colon polyps?

There isn't a way to fully reduce the risk of colon polyps. But if you adopt healthy lifestyle habits, you can help stop them from forming.

To reduce your risk of getting colon polyps and colon cancer, you should:

  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of whole grains, fruits, and veggies.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Stay active with moderate exercise a few times a week.

How likely are colon polyps to turn into cancer?

Most colon polyps don't turn into cancer.

Bigger polyps are more likely to become cancerous than small ones.

Colon Polyps Symptoms and Diagnosis

It's crucial to be aware of any signs of colon polyps.

Screening exams are the best way to learn if you have them or not.

What are the signs and symptoms of colon polyps?

There doesn't tend to be any symptoms of colon polyps. As a rule, you can't tell if you have a colon polyp without a screening test.

But if a polyp is very large, it may cause:

  • Stomach pain.
  • Blood in your stool.
  • Changes in bowel habits (such as having to go more often).
  • Constipation.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Excess mucus in your stool.

How do you diagnose colon polyps?

The most common test for colon polyps is a colonoscopy. It's an outpatient test, which means you go home the same day.

You get ready for the test by drinking a colon cleansing fluid to empty out your colon.

During a colonoscopy, your doctor will look at your colon through a camera attached to a long, thin tube. If they find polyps, they'll remove them during the test.

Other tests to detect your risk for colon polyps include:

  • Digital rectal exam, where a doctor inserts a gloved finger into your rectum.
  • Fecal occult blood test, which detects blood in your stool.
  • Fecal testing, which detects DNA from altered cells.
  • Sigmoidoscopy, which uses a flexible tube to look at the sigmoid colon.

What Are the Treatment Options for Colon Polyps?

Doctors can remove polyps during a colonoscopy. They cut them out and burn the tissue to seal off blood vessels to stop bleeding.

Polyp removal is painless.

After doctors remove the polyp, they send it to a lab to see if there's any sign of cancer.

There's no test to find out which polyps may turn into cancer, so it's best to remove all of them.

Large polyps may require a second treatment to remove them fully. In rare cases, you may need surgery to remove an extra-large polyp.

Once doctors remove a polyp, it doesn't tend to come back. But you are at risk for developing polyps at other sites in the large intestine.

How often should I have a colonoscopy?

Most people should have their first screening test at age 45.

If the lab report confirms a precancerous polyp, you'll need a follow-up screening in 3 to 5 years.

If you don't have any polyps, doctors suggest testing every 10 years.

People with a family history of colon or rectal cancer should have a colonoscopy:

  • At age 40 or 10 years before the age their family member received their diagnosis.
  • Then every 5 years.