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What I need to know about Colon Polyps
On this page:

What are colon polyps?
Are polyps dangerous?
Who gets polyps?
What are the symptoms?
How does the doctor test for polyps?
Who should get tested for polyps?
How are polyps treated?
How can I prevent polyps?
Points to Remember
Glossary
For More Information
Acknowledgments
What are colon polyps?
 
Digestive tract
A polyp* is extra tissue that grows inside your body. Colon polyps grow in the large intestine. The large intestine, also called the colon, is part of your digestive system. It's a long, hollow tube at the end of your digestive tract where your body makes and stores stool.

*Medical terms are defined in the glossary.


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Are polyps dangerous?
Most polyps are not dangerous. Most are benign, which means they are not cancer. But over time, some types of polyps can turn into cancer. Usually, polyps that are smaller than a pea aren't harmful. But larger polyps could someday become cancer or may already be cancer. To be safe, doctors remove all polyps and test them.

 
Colon polyp
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Who gets polyps?
Anyone can get polyps, but certain people are more likely than others. You may have a greater chance of getting polyps if

you're over 50. The older you get, the more likely you are to develop polyps.
you've had polyps before.
someone in your family has had polyps.
someone in your family has had cancer of the large intestine.
 
Find out if someone in your family has had polyps.
You may also be more likely to get polyps if you

eat a lot of fatty foods
smoke
drink alcohol
don't exercise
weigh too much

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What are the symptoms?
Most small polyps don't cause symptoms. Often, people don't know they have one until the doctor finds it during a regular checkup or while testing them for something else.

But some people do have symptoms like these:

bleeding from the anus. You might notice blood on your underwear or on toilet paper after you've had a bowel movement.


constipation or diarrhea that lasts more than a week.


blood in the stool. Blood can make stool look black, or it can show up as red streaks in the stool.


If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor to find out what the problem is.

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How does the doctor test for polyps?
The doctor can use four tests to check for polyps:

Digital rectal exam. The doctor wears gloves and checks your rectum, the last part of the large intestine, to see if it feels normal. This test would find polyps only in the rectum, so the doctor may need to do one of the other tests listed below to find polyps higher up in the intestine.


Barium enema. The doctor puts a liquid called barium into your rectum before taking x rays of your large intestine. Barium makes your intestine look white in the pictures. Polyps are dark, so they're easy to see.


Sigmoidoscopy. With this test, the doctor can see inside your large intestine. The doctor puts a thin flexible tube into your rectum. The device is called a sigmoidoscope, and it has a light and a tiny video camera in it. The doctor uses the sigmoidoscope to look at the last third of your large intestine.


Colonoscopy. This test is like sigmoidoscopy, but the doctor looks at all of the large intestine. It usually requires sedation.


 
Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy testing

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Who should get tested for polyps?
Talk to your doctor about getting tested for polyps if

you have symptoms
you're 50 years old or older
someone in your family has had polyps or colon cancer

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How are polyps treated?
The doctor will remove the polyp. Sometimes, the doctor takes it out during sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Or the doctor may decide to operate through the abdomen. The polyp is then tested for cancer.

If you've had polyps, the doctor may want you to get tested regularly in the future.

 
Polyp removal

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How can I prevent polyps?
Doctors don't know of any one sure way to prevent polyps. But you might be able to lower your risk of getting them if you

eat more fruits and vegetables and less fatty food
don't smoke
avoid alcohol
exercise every day
lose weight if you're overweight
Eating more calcium and folate can also lower your risk of getting polyps. Some foods that are rich in calcium are milk, cheese, and broccoli. Some foods that are rich in folate are chickpeas, kidney beans, and spinach.

Some doctors think that aspirin might help prevent polyps. Studies are under way.


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Points to Remember
A polyp is extra tissue that grows inside the body. Most polyps are not harmful.


Symptoms may include constipation or diarrhea for more than a week or blood on your underwear, on toilet paper, or in your stool.


Many polyps do not cause symptoms.


Doctors remove all polyps and test them for cancer.


Talk to your doctor about getting tested for polyps if


you have any symptoms


you're 50 years old or older


someone in your family has had polyps or colon cancer


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Glossary
Abdomen (AB-duh-men): The area between the chest and the hips. It contains the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and spleen.

Anus (AY-nus): The opening through which stool leaves the body.

Benign (buh-NINE): Not cancerous.

Colonoscopy (koh-luh-NAW-skuh-pee): A test to look inside the entire large intestine. The doctor uses a flexible tube that contains a light and a tiny video camera. This device is called a colonoscope.

Large intestine: A long, hollow tube in your body that makes and stores stool. Also called the colon.

Polyp (PAH-lip): An extra piece of tissue that grows inside the body.

Rectum (REK-tum): The last section of the large intestine, leading to the anus.

Sigmoidoscopy (SIG-moy-DAW-skuh-pee): A test to look inside the lower section of the large intestine. The doctor uses a flexible tube that contains a light and a tiny video camera. The device is called a sigmoidoscope.

Stool: The solid waste that passes through the rectum as a bowel movement.

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For More Information
American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons
85 West Algonquin Road, Suite 550
Arlington Heights, IL 60005
Phone: (847) 290-9184
Email: ascrs@fascrs.org
Internet: www.fascrs.org

National Cancer Institute
Cancer Information Service
Building 31, Room 10A16
31 Center Drive, MSC 2580
Bethesda, MD 20892-2580
Phone: 1-800-422-6237 or (301) 496-6631
Internet: www.nci.nih.gov

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Acknowledgments
The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) would like to thank the following individuals for assisting with scientific and editorial review of this publication.

C. Richard Boland, M.D.
University of California at San Diego

Francis M. Giardiello, M.D.
Johns Hopkins Hospital

Thanks also to Anne Barker, R.N., B.S.N., at the Health Alliance, Columbia, MD, for facilitating field-testing of this publication.

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National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
2 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3570
Email: nddic@info.niddk.nih.gov

The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1980, the clearinghouse provides information about digestive diseases to people with digestive disorders and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. NDDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about digestive diseases.

Publications produced by the clearinghouse are carefully reviewed by both NIDDK scientists and outside experts.

This e-text is not copyrighted. The clearinghouse encourages users of this e-pub to duplicate and distribute as many copies as desired.


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NIH Publication No. 03-4977
April 2003

 

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