Colon polyps are very common. Although most people don’t even know that they have them, polyps can sometimes cause bothersome symptoms. More importantly, certain types of colon polyps have the potential to lead to colon cancer, which is the fourth most common type of cancer in the US.
How do you know if you have colon polyps? What causes these abnormal growths to form?
What are polyps?
A colon polyp, also known as a colorectal polyp, is an abnormal growth of tissue inside the colon (the large intestine) or the rectum (the last part of the large intestine, which is connected to the anus). They can be flat, raised, or on a stalk.
How do polyps form?
Normally, the cells lining the intestine are always growing and dividing. This process keeps the lining of the intestine healthy and allows it to function well. When a cell experiences a mutation, or a change in its DNA, then it may start to grow and divide abnormally fast. This can lead to the formation of a polyp.
Colorectal polyp symptoms
Most people with colon polyps don’t experience any symptoms. However, some people may experience symptoms, particularly if their polyps are larger. Some of the possible symptoms include:
- Bleeding from the rectum (seeing blood in the toilet bowl or on the toilet paper after you have a bowel movement)
- Dark stools (due to the presence of blood)
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Change in bowel habits (either constipation or diarrhea)
In some cases, bleeding from polyps may lead to anemia. This is a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough red blood cells. Because red blood cells carry oxygen in the blood, anemia can make a person feel weak and tired.
Because colon polyps often don’t cause symptoms, the only way to be certain of whether you have them is to get a procedure called a colonoscopy. In this procedure, a doctor uses a camera on a long flexible tube to look inside your colon.
Different types of colon polyps
There are several different types of colon polyps. Some of these are considered to be benign, meaning that they won’t turn into cancer. These are also known as nonneoplastic polyps. These include several types of colon polyps:
- Hyperplastic polyps
- Inflammatory polyps
- Hamartomatous polyps
There are also some types of colon polyps that have the potential to become cancerous if they aren’t removed. These are sometimes referred to as neoplastic polyps, or precancerous polyps. These colon polyps types include:
- Serrated polyps
Polyps grow slowly, and it’s believed that in most cases, it takes about ten years for a polyp to turn into colon cancer. However, in some cases, this may occur more quickly.
How do you get colon polyps?
Colon polyps are very common. Anyone can potentially get a colon polyp, but there are certain factors that make a person more likely to get colon polyps. Some of these risk factors are not under your control, while others are. The risk factors include:
- Lack of exercise
- Eating an unhealthy diet (too much saturated fat and not enough fiber)
- Drinking too much alcohol (three or more drinks per day)
- Age (people age 50 or older are more likely to have polyps)
- Race (Black people are more likely to develop colon polyps and colon cancer)
- Inflammatory diseases of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Family history
How to prevent colon polyps from returning
Colon polyps can be removed during a colonoscopy. This decreases your risk of developing colon cancer, by removing any precancerous polyps before they have a chance to grow and become cancer. However, there’s a chance that new polyps will grow.
If you have any of the risk factors for colon polyps, then you can decrease the chances that the polyps will return by addressing the risk factors that you can modify. For example, exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, and losing weight if you’re overweight will all help to decrease your risk of developing colon polyps or colon cancer. Quitting smoking and reducing your alcohol consumption (or quitting drinking entirely) will also be helpful. Taking these actions will not only reduce your risk of colon polyps, but will also help to reduce your risk of other serious chronic diseases, such as diabetes.
Do polyps cause pain?
Usually, colon polyps don’t cause any symptoms. However, some people can experience abdominal pain, if the polyp partially obstructs the flow of material through the intestine.
Are colon polyps cancerous?
There are different types of colon polyps. Some of these have the potential to turn into cancer, while others are considered to be benign, meaning that they won’t become cancer. If a precancerous colon polyp is removed early enough, then it can be prevented from becoming cancerous. This is why screening colonoscopies are generally recommended. They allow any polyps to be removed before they have a chance to become cancerous.
Can polyps cause bleeding?
In some cases, polyps do cause bleeding from the anus. Polyps symptoms may include seeing blood in the toilet bowl or on the toilet paper after you have a bowel movement (poop). In some cases, the blood may not look bright red, but rather may make your stools look dark.
Can polyps cause cramping?
If a colon polyp partially obstructs the flow of material through the intestine, then it can cause a cramping sensation in the abdomen. Often, the cramping will come and go.
Colon polyps. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/colon-polyps/symptoms-causes/syc-20352875. Accessed 21 Nov 2022.
Colon Polyps. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15370-colon-polyps. Accessed 21 Nov 2022.
Colon Polyps. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430761/. Accessed 21 Nov 2022.
Colon Polyps. American College of Gastroenterology. https://gi.org/topics/colon-polyps/. Accessed 21 Nov 2022.