A polyp is an abnormal growth of tissue within your body. Although they can appear anywhere, they are usually found in the uterus, nose, colon, or other organs with a large concentration of blood vessels.
In most cases, polyps are harmless—or “benign”. However, they can become cancerous—or “malignant.” If your doctor discovers a polyp in your body, he or she will likely perform a biopsy. During this procedure, a doctor or other medical professional will remove the polyp or take a sample from it to determine whether it is cancerous.
Polyps can develop in people of all ages. However, colon polyps in particular are more common in adults over the age of 50, especially those who smoke, are overweight, and have a family history of polyps or colon cancer (Mayo Clinic, 2011). You are also at an increased risk if your diet contains a lot of fatty foods and alcohol, if you are overweight, or if you do not exercise often.
Polyps often do not cause any symptoms. According the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, colonic polyps may cause:
- bleeding from the anus or bleeding after a bowel movement
- constipation that lasts more than a week
- diarrhea that lasts more than a week
- bloody stools (NIDDK, 2012)
You should contact your doctor if you develop these symptoms.
Usually though, your doctor will discover the polyps during an unrelated test or routine exam. Because some polyps are malignant, doctors normally recommend removal or a biopsy to test for cancer.
There are few risks associated with this test. As with any invasive medical procedure, there is a potential for bleeding, a perforation—or hole—in the organ where the polyp is located, and infection.
The necessary preparations for the biopsy depend on the polyp’s location. If the polyp is in your nose or an open, easily accessible area of the body, preparation is not usually necessary.
However, you will need to prepare before a biopsy if the polyp is located inside your body—within your colon or uterus, for example.
Your doctor will give you specific instructions before the test, which may include fasting or consuming only water or clear liquids for one to three days before the procedure (NIDDK, 2012). You will be sedated during the biopsy, so it is a good idea to wear comfortable clothes and arrange for a ride home afterward. Be sure to tell your doctor about any medications, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements you are taking, and ask about any other special restrictions.
If you have a polyp on an area of the body such as the nose, your doctor will probably use a local anesthetic to numb the site. He or she will then use an instrument to cut either the polyp or a piece of the polyp away. You may feel a tugging sensation, but you should not feel any pain.
If your doctor has scheduled a colonoscopy or a colposcopy-directed biopsy to examine a colon polyp, you will probably be asked to put on a gown and to lie on your left side. You will receive a sedative and pain medication to help you to relax.
The doctor will then insert a colonoscope—an instrument that that lets him or her view the colon or uterus through a tiny camera—into your body. The doctor will use this instrument to look for polyps. If there are polyps, he or she will remove them or take a tissue sample. The sample will be sent to a lab where it will be checked for cancer. The whole procedure usually takes about one hour (NIDDK, 2012).
You will probably not experience any pain during a colonoscopy or a colposcopy-directed biopsy, due to the sedative and pain medication. It is normal to have some bloating and cramping after the procedure; however, you should recover within one day. Many patients are groggy after the procedure until the sedative wears off. Most outpatient facilities will not allow you to drive after the procedure, so you should arrange for a ride home.
After the procedure, you should contact your doctor immediately if you have any signs of bleeding, severe pain, dizziness, or bloody stools (NIDDK, 2012). These are not common side effects of the test and may be a sign that something is wrong.
After your biopsy, your doctor will call you to discuss the results or to schedule a follow-up appointment. Normal results mean that the polyp is benign (not cancerous). Abnormal results mean that the polyp is malignant (cancerous). Since each lab may have different terminology for the results, it is best to discuss them with your doctor. He or she will help you to determine the best course of treatment.