When you think of polyps, you might think of growths in your colon. That’s a common place to find polyps, but it’s not the only place. “You can get polyps on surfaces that include the stomach, colon, uterus and cervix. They take years to grow and can occur at any age,” said Philip Rosen, MD, a colon and rectal surgeon with Banner – University Medicine.
If your doctor says you have polyps, you may realize you don’t know that much about them. Polyps are small tissue growths, usually less than half an inch wide. They can look like little bumps or stalks. Although polyps themselves are not cancer, they are abnormal, and they grow because their cells divide rapidly, the same way that cancer grows. There’s a chance that they might turn into cancer years later. That’s why doctors often recommend removing them.
Here’s what to know about polyps
The symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of polyps depend on what type of polyps you have, whether you’re experiencing any symptoms, your personal medical and family history and other risk factors.
You often don’t notice any symptoms with colon polyps. If they’re advanced, you might have diarrhea, constipation, pain in your abdomen or blood in your stool. Most of the time, your doctor uncovers colon (large intestine) polyps during a colonoscopy and removes them safely during the same procedure, while you are under anesthesia.
“That prevents them from possibly turning into colon cancer years later,” Dr. Rosen said. “Colon cancer is almost 100% preventable if you get regular colorectal cancer screening tests and remove polyps before they have a chance to turn into colon cancer.”
If your doctor finds one or two small polyps (less than a quarter inch in diameter), you’ll most likely be considered low risk for colon cancer and you may not need another colonoscopy for five years or more.
You may wonder if you could have done something to prevent these polyps. “Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to prevent polyps from forming. They are not related to diet. They are likely caused by a combination of genetics and bad luck,” Dr. Rosen said. If you’ve had polyps, you’re at higher risk of developing them again in the future.
Some people with colon polyps may have Lynch syndrome, an inherited disorder that increases your risk for colorectal cancers and other types of cancer. People with Lynch syndrome don’t develop more polyps than other people, but they often develop them at a younger age.
Stomach polyps (gastric polyps)
Stomach polyps are rare. With them, you may have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or pain. (Of course, these could be symptoms of many different health conditions.) The most common type of stomach polyps, hyperplastic polyps, are usually benign and rarely become cancerous.
Those who are at higher risk for developing stomach polyps include:
- Older people
- People with stomach inflammation
- People who regularly use proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as Nexium and Prilosec to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- People who have had a bacterial stomach infection caused by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
- Familial adenomatous polyposis. This rare syndrome increases the likelihood of developing stomach polyps and colon cancer.
If your doctor suspects stomach polyps, they may recommend an upper endoscopy (esophagogastroduodenoscopy), a procedure where a small camera is placed in your stomach so your doctor can see the polyps. They may also take a tissue sample to send to a lab for evaluation.
Smaller polyps may just need observation and you may not need to treat them unless they grow or cause symptoms. If you have larger or potentially cancerous polyps, your doctor will want to remove them. They can be removed during your endoscopy.
If you have vaginal bleeding, irregular menstrual bleeding or infertility, uterine polyps could be the cause. High estrogen levels may be a risk factor in developing uterine polyps and older women and women with obesity are more likely to have them. They are also called endometrial polyps.
Uterine polyps can vary in shape. They could be either round or oval, and can range in size from a few millimeters, similar to a sesame seed, to several centimeters or larger, like a golf ball.
To diagnose uterine polyps, your doctor will probably look inside your uterus with an ultrasound (transvaginal ultrasound) or hysteroscopy. They may also recommend an endometrial biopsy. Sometimes, these polyps can be monitored for changes, and you don’t need treatment. In other cases, medication can help shrink these polyps, and surgery can remove them.
Approximately 5% of uterine polyps are cancerous. The risk of a polyp being cancerous increases in women who are postmenopausal or who are experiencing abnormal bleeding. Sometimes, a benign polyp may closely resemble uterine cancer (endometrial sarcomas) or precancerous conditions (endometrial hyperplasia).
You probably won’t have any symptoms if you have cervical polyps, but you may notice heavier than usual bleeding during menstruation, bleeding during sex or vaginal discharge. They can develop if you have high estrogen levels or an infected or inflamed cervix. They are more often found in premenopausal women, women who have been pregnant and women with sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
There are two types of cervical polyps:
- Endocervical polyps: these are more common and develop in your cervical canal
- Ectocervical polyps: these are less common and occur on the outermost cervical layer
Your doctor may uncover cervical polyps during a pelvic examination or a Pap test (Pap smear). They can see cervical polyps when they look at your cervix through your vagina. You can usually have polyps removed at the same time—it’s a quick procedure with little or no pain. You may notice light bleeding and/or cramping afterward for a few days.
In rare cases, a cervical polyp may contain abnormal, precancerous or cancerous cells.
You may have hoarseness that develops over time if you have throat polyps, which are also called vocal cord nodules. They can develop if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), if you smoke or if you injure your vocal cords by talking or singing for a long time or by shouting. These types of polyps may go away with voice therapy and behavior modifications, but they may require surgical removal.
An ear, nose and throat doctor can check for these polyps by looking at the back of your throat with a mirror. Another test involves inserting a small scope in your throat to see your vocal cords. The scope is connected to a strobe light that illuminates when your vocal cords vibrate. This test is usually performed by a laryngologist or speech-language pathologist who specializes in voice disorders.
Symptoms of nasal polyps are similar to symptoms of a cold. You may experience a runny nose, nasal congestion, nasal pain and a loss of sense of smell. They can develop after an allergic reaction or an infection. You’re more prone to nasal polyps if you have allergies, asthma, cystic fibrosis (CF) or chronic sinusitis.
You might need a nasal endoscopy or CT scan to examine these polyps. They can often be treated with steroids to reduce inflammation. If that doesn’t work, they can be removed surgically. Your doctor can treat your sinuses at the same time (with endoscopic sinus surgery), so you’re less likely to develop these polyps again in the future.
The bottom line
Polyps are common growths that can appear in many different parts of your body. Oftentimes, polyps are benign. However, some are precancerous and have the potential to become cancer in the future, so removing them is often a good idea. In many cases, that’s all the treatment you need, though if you’ve had polyps, you’re more likely to develop them again. Reach out to a Banner Health provider near you to learn more about your risk for polyps.