Polyps are fragile structures that grow from stalks rooted on the surface of the cervix or inside the cervical canal. There is usually only one polyp present—or at most, two or three.
Cervical polyps occur in about four percent of women of reproductive age. They are most common in women in their 40s and 50s who have had more than one child. Polyps almost never occur in young women prior to the start of menstruation. Polyps are also common during pregnancy. This may be caused by an increase in the hormone estrogen.
Cervical polyps are usually benign (not cancerous), and cervical cancer is rare. Cancer of the cervix occurs in only one percent of women of reproductive age—about 12,000 new cases per year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Polyps on the cervix may not cause any noticeable symptoms. However, if any of the following symptoms occur, see your gynecologist right away:
- vaginal discharge of white or yellow mucus (leucorrhea)
- vaginal spotting or bleeding:
- after sexual intercourse (post coital)
- between periods (inter-menstrual)
- after douching
- after menopause (postmenopausal)
- abnormally heavy periods (menorrhagia)
Some of these symptoms can also be signs of cancer. In rare cases, polyps represent an early phase of cervical cancer. Removing them helps reduce this risk.
Ask your doctor how often you should get regular pelvic examinations and pap tests. Recommendations can vary with a patient’s age and health history.
It is not fully understood why cervical polyps occur. Their formation may be linked to:
- increased levels of estrogen (female sex hormone)
- chronic inflammation in the cervix, vagina, or uterus
- clogged blood vessels
High Estrogen Levels
Estrogen levels naturally fluctuate throughout a woman’s life. The most common times are during menstrual cycles, pregnancies, and in the months leading up to menopause. For example, estrogen levels can reach 100 times the normal range during pregnancy.
Man-made chemicals that mimic estrogen are present everywhere in our environment today. For example, xenoestrogens are found in commercially produced meats and dairy products.
Chemical estrogens can also be released into food that is heated in Styrofoam or plastic containers. Even some air fresheners contain phthalates, another estrogen-like chemical.
An inflamed cervix appears red, irritated, or eroded. Some of the known causes of cervical inflammation include:
- bacterial infection
- condyloma cuminata virus (warts)
- human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- yeast infections
- pregnancy, miscarriage, or abortion
- hormonal changes
HPV infection is also a known cause of cervical cancer. Regular pelvic exams and pap tests (also called pap smears) are an important precaution for women of any age. The pap test is done by scraping a small amount of tissue from the cervix, which is sent to a laboratory. The test checks for infection and abnormal cells.
Polyps are easy to see in a routine pelvic examination. The doctor will see smooth, finger-like growths on the cervix that appear red or purple in color. Polyps usually protrude out from the cervical canal.
Biopsies (tissue samples) of the polyps are taken and sent to a laboratory for testing. Results usually show benign polyp cells. In rare cases, there may be abnormal cells or neoplastic changes (precancerous patterns of growth).
Removing cervical polyps is a simple procedure that is done in the doctor’s office. No pain medication is needed. There are several ways to remove cervical polyps, including:
- twisting the polyp off at the base
- tying surgical string around the base of the polyp and cutting it away
- using ring forceps to remove the polyp
Methods used to destroy the base of the polyp, and prevent regrowth, include:
- liquid nitrogen
- electrocautery ablation (uses an electrically heated needle)
- laser surgery
You may feel a brief, mild pain during removal and mild to moderate cramps for a few hours after. Spotting of blood from the vagina may occur for one or two days after removal.
Polyp removal is a simple, safe, and noninvasive procedure. However, if you have ever had polyps, you are at higher risk of developing them again. Getting regular pelvic examinations ensures finding any growths early in their development.
Since some infections are linked to cervical polyps, a few simple steps may help reduce your risk. Wear cotton underwear that allows good air circulation. This prevents excess heat and moisture, which is the perfect environment for infections. Also, have your partner use a condom during intercourse.
Be sure to get regular pelvic examinations and pap tests.