Topic Overview

What are colon polyps?

Colon polyps are growths in your
large intestine (colon). The cause of most colon polyps is not known, but they
are common in adults.

Over time, some polyps can turn into colorectal cancer. It usually takes many years for that to happen.

What are the symptoms?

You can have colon polyps
and not know it, because they usually don’t cause symptoms. They are usually
found during routine screening tests for colorectal cancer. A screening test looks
for signs of a disease when there are no symptoms.

If polyps get
large, they can cause symptoms. You may have bleeding from your rectum or a
change in your bowel habits. A change in bowel habits includes diarrhea,
constipation, going to the bathroom more often or less often than usual, or a
change in the way your stool looks.

How are colon polyps diagnosed?

Most polyps are
found during tests for colorectal cancer. Experts recommend routine colorectal cancer
testing for everyone age 50 to 75 who has a normal risk for colorectal cancer.
Experts also say that people ages 76 to 85 can work with their doctors to decide if screening is a good option. And they advise people ages 86 and older that screening is usually not helpful. People with a higher risk, such as those with a strong
family history of colorectal cancer, may need to be tested sooner. The tests for colorectal
cancer include stool tests that can be done at home and procedures, such as a colonoscopy, that are done at your doctor’s office or clinic.

What increases your risk of getting colon polyps?

You are more likely to have colon polyps if:

  • You are over 50.
  • Colon polyps or colorectal cancer runs
    in your family.
  • You inherited a certain gene that causes you to
    develop polyps. People with this gene are much more likely than others to get
    the kind of polyps that turn into colorectal cancer.

How are they treated?

Doctors usually remove colon
polyps, because some of them can turn into colorectal cancer. Most polyps are removed
during a colonoscopy. You may need to have surgery if you have a large
polyp.

After you have had polyps, you have a higher chance of developing new polyps. If you have had polyps removed,
it is important to have follow-up testing to look for more polyps. Talk to your
doctor about how often you need to be tested.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about colon polyps:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.

Symptoms

Colon polyps usually do not cause
symptoms unless they are larger than
1 cm (0.4 in.) or they are
cancerous. The most common symptom is rectal bleeding. Sometimes the bleeding
may not be obvious (occult) and may only be discovered after doing a screening
test for blood in the stool.

Colon
polyps usually do not cause pain or a change in bowel habits unless they are
large and are blocking part of the colon. These symptoms are rare, because
polyps usually are discovered and removed before they become large enough to
cause problems.

After cancer develops, additional symptoms may
occur, such as changes in bowel habits and significant weight loss.

Exams and Tests

Unless
colon polyps are large and cause bleeding or pain, the
only way to know if you have polyps is to have one or more tests that explore
the inside surface of your colon.

Several tests can be used to
detect colon polyps. Two of these exams,
flexible sigmoidoscopy and
colonoscopy, also can be used to collect tissue
samples (called a
biopsy) or to remove colon polyps. All the tests may
be used to screen for colon polyps and colorectal cancer and as follow-up tests
after colon polyps have been removed. There are two basic types of tests-stool
tests and tests that look inside your body.

Stool tests

  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is done to look for microscopic amounts of blood in the stool.
    There aren’t any restrictions on what you can eat before having this test. If the test is positive for blood in the
    stool, it is important to have a colonoscopy. This will help
    your doctor find the source of the blood and remove polyps if they are
    found.
  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) also looks for blood in the stool, but it isn’t as specific as the FIT. There are restrictions on what you can eat before having this test. If this test is
    positive for blood in the stool, you will need to have a colonoscopy.
  • Stool DNA test (sDNA/Cologuard) looks at DNA in the stool to see if there are changes in the cells of the colon. Certain kinds of changes in cell DNA
    happen when you have cancer. If your test is
    abnormal, you will need to have a colonoscopy.

An abnormal result from a stool test doesn’t mean that you have colorectal cancer. It might be a false-positive result. So the next step is to have a colonoscopy. After you’ve had the colonoscopy, you and your doctor will know whether or not you have cancer.

Tests that look inside your body

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy allows the doctor to look at
    the lower third of the colon. During a sigmoidoscopy exam, samples of any
    growths can be collected (biopsied). And precancerous and cancerous polyps can
    sometimes be removed. But if your doctor finds polyps, you will need to have a colonoscopy to check the upper part of your colon.
  • Colonoscopy lets the doctor inspect the entire colon for polyps and cancer.
    During a
    colonoscopy, samples of any growths can be collected
    (biopsied). And precancerous and cancerous polyps usually can be
    removed.
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) uses X-rays to make a
    detailed picture of the colon to help the doctor look for polyps. If this test
    finds polyps, you will need to have a colonoscopy.

Screening for colorectal cancer

Screening for colorectal
cancer with a single test or a combination of tests reduces your chance of
having complications and dying from colorectal cancer.
Experts recommend routine colorectal cancer testing for everyone age 50 to 75 who has a normal risk for colorectal cancer. People with a
higher risk, such as those with a strong family history
of colorectal cancer, may need to be tested sooner. Talk to your doctor about when you
should be tested.

For example, the U.S.
Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has the following advice for
colorectal cancer testing:footnote 1

  • People ages 50 to 75 should have a screening test starting at age 50.
  • People ages 76 to 85 can work with their doctors to decide if screening is a good option.
  • People ages 86 and older are advised that screening for colorectal cancer is usually not helpful.

If you are age 50 to 75, screening may lower
your risk of dying from colorectal cancer. Screening options include the following
commonly used tests.

The method of screening that you have depends on your
personal preferences, your doctor’s preferences, and what the clinic or office
you go to is able to do.

People with a
higher risk for colorectal cancer, such as those with a strong family history of colorectal cancer, may need to be tested sooner. Talk to your doctor about when you should be tested.

If you have a family history of
familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), you should start screening tests at age 10 or 12.

If you have a family
history of
hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), you
should have a colonoscopy every 1 to 2 years starting at age 20 to 25, or 10
years younger than the age at which the youngest family member who has
colorectal cancer was diagnosed, whichever comes first.

Talk with your doctor. Decide with him or her when to start and stop screening for colorectal cancer. These decisions will depend on how old you are, your
family history, any health problems you have, and the benefits you can
expect from regular screening.

Follow-up testing

If a
biopsy of polyps obtained during screening reveals
only
hyperplastic polyps of any size, routine follow-up
screening is all that is needed. These polyps do not become cancerous.

Most doctors agree that if you have had one or more
adenomatous polyps removed, you probably need regular
follow-up colonoscopy exams every few years. This type of polyp is more likely
to turn into cancer, but that risk is still very low. How often you need a
colonoscopy may depend on the number and size of the polyps, your age, your
health, and other risk factors that you may have for polyps. Talk with your
doctor about the follow-up testing schedule that is right for you.

Treatment Overview

Polyps are removed during screening if you have a

colonoscopy. The polyp is examined to find out if it
is the kind that could become cancer.

Initial treatment

If
adenomatous polyps are found during an exam with
flexible sigmoidoscopy, a colonoscopy will be done to look for and remove any
polyps in the rest of the colon.

The bigger a
colon polyp is, especially if it is larger than
1 cm (0.4 in.), the more likely
it is that the polyp will be adenomatous or contain cancer cells.

If only
hyperplastic polyps are found during your flexible
sigmoidoscopy, you likely do not need to have a colonoscopy. These polyps do
not become cancerous. In this case you can continue your regular screenings,
unless you are at an
increased risk for colorectal cancer because of a family
history of colorectal cancer or an inherited polyp syndrome.

A sessile polyp doesn’t have a stalk. It is mostly a flat growth. Like other colon polyps, it grows on the inside wall of the colon. Sessile polyps can turn into cancer. Like other polyps, they are removed if found during sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.

Risks of removing polyps during colonoscopy

Complications from colonoscopy are rare. There is a slight risk
of:

  • Puncturing the colon
    or causing severe bleeding by damaging the wall of the colon. (This happens in less than 3 out of
    1,000 people having a colonoscopy.footnote 2, footnote 3)
  • Bleeding caused by removing a
    polyp.
  • Complications from sedatives given during the
    procedure.

Ongoing treatment

Regular screenings for
colon polyps are the best way to prevent polyps from
developing into colorectal cancer.

Most colon polyps can be identified and removed during a
colonoscopy.

If you have had one or more adenomatous polyps
removed, you probably need regular follow-up colonoscopy exams every 3 to 5
years. Talk with your doctor about the follow-up schedule that he or she thinks
is best for you.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

Surgery is
sometimes needed for large
colon polyps that have a broad area of attachment
(sessile polyps) to the colon wall. These large polyps sometimes cannot be
removed safely during a colonoscopy and may be more likely to develop into
cancer.

If cancer is found when the colon polyps are examined, you
will begin treatment for
colorectal cancer. For more information, see the topic
Colorectal Cancer.

Home Treatment

No home treatment is done for
colon polyps. See Treatment Overview for more information.

But you can take action that may
prevent colon polyps:

  • Stay at a healthy body weight.
  • Quit
    smoking.
  • Use alcohol in moderation. Moderate alcohol use usually is
    defined as 1
    alcoholic beverage a day for women and 2 for
    men.

Experts are not yet certain that these approaches prevent
colon polyps or
colorectal cancer.

These self-care
methods should not be a substitute for regular colorectal screening, especially
if you are older than 50 or are at
increased risk for colon polyps or colorectal cancer. While
these approaches may decrease your risk for colon polyps, they will not prevent
you from ever having colon polyps.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American College of
Gastroenterology
https://patients.gi.org
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (U.S.)
www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov

References

Citations

  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2016). Screening for colorectal cancer: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA, 315(23): 2564-2575. DOI:10.1001/jama.2016.5989. Accessed June 27, 2016.
  2. Warren JL, et al. (2009). Adverse events after outpatient colonoscopy in the Medicare population. Annals of Internal Medicine, 150(12): 849-857. DOI: 10.7326/0003-4819-150-12-200906160-00008. Accessed February 2, 2015.
  3. Rabeneck L, et al. (2008). Bleeding and perforation after outpatient colonoscopy and their risk factors in usual clinical practice. Gastroenterology, 135(6): 1899-1906. DOI 10.1053/j.gastro.2008.08.058. Accessed February 13, 2015.

Other Works Consulted

  • Bresalier RS (2010). Colorectal cancer. In M Feldman et al., eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran’s Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2191-2238. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Lieberman DA, et al. (2012). Guidelines for colonoscopy surveillance after screening and polypectomy: A consensus update by the U.S. Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer. Gastroenterology, 143(3): 844-857.
  • Rex DK, et al. (2009). American College of Gastroenterology guidelines for colorectal cancer screening 2008. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 104(3): 739-750.
  • Syngal S, Katrinos F (2012). Colorectal cancer screening. In NJ Greenberger et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Therapy: Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Endoscopy, 2nd ed., pp. 273-286. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2008). Screening for colorectal cancer: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. Available online: https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspscolo.htm.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Jerome B. Simon, MD, FRCPC, FACP – Gastroenterology

Current as ofMay 3, 2017