Polyps are tissue growths that most often look like small, flat bumps or tiny mushroom-like stalks. They are usually small and less than half an inch wide. Most are benign but can become cancerous.

Uterine and colon polyps are the most common, but it’s also possible to develop polyps in places that include the:

Most polyps are benign, meaning they’re noncancerous. But because they are due to abnormal cell growth, they can eventually become malignant, or cancerous.

Your doctor can help determine if the growth is a polyp by performing a biopsy. This involves taking a small sample of tissue and testing it for the presence of cancerous cells.

Treatment for polyps depends on:

  • their location
  • size
  • whether they’re benign or malignant

Read more about colonic polyps and colon cancer.

Each type of polyp can cause unique symptoms based on location. Below are some common polyp types, their locations, and symptoms.

Type of polypsLocationSymptoms
colorectal (colon)large intestine, colon, and rectumblood in stool, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea
endometrial (uterine)uterus, usually uterine lininginfertility, irregular menstrual bleeding, vaginal bleeding
cervicalcervix, where the uterus connects to the vaginatypically no symptoms, but can include bleeding during menstruation (heavier) or sex, or an unusual discharge
gastric (stomach)stomach and stomach liningnausea, pain, tenderness, vomiting, bleeding
nasalnose or near sinusessimilar to the common cold such as headache, nose pain, loss of smell
auralear canalloss of hearing and blood drainage from the ear
vocal cord (throat)vocal cordshoarse and breathy voice that develops over a few days to several weeks
bladderbladder liningblood in urine, painful urination, frequent urination
gallbladdergallbladder liningpain in the right abdomen, bloating, nausea, difficulty eating

Most colon polyps are noncancerous and do not often cause symptoms until they are in their later stages. But like gastric polyps, they can develop into cancer. Up to 13 percent of endometrial polyps, which occur in the uterus, can also become cancerous.

The causes of polyps can vary based on their location.

Research suggests you may have a higher chance of developing certain types of polyps if you have some genetic changes or a family history of syndromes caused by genetic features. Lynch syndrome, also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer or HNPCC, is one example.

Some known causes include:

Some polyps happen for particular reasons, but sometimes the cause is unclear.

Here are some of the reasons specific polyps may occur.

Colon polyps

Colon polyps happen when changes occur in the mucous lining of the colon. They may occur sporadically, for no clear reason, or as the result of genetic changes or an underlying condition, such as IBD.

Uterine polyps

Endometrial polyps develop in the uterus. They happen when parts of the endometrial glands grow too large and protrude from the lining of the endometrium. Doctors do not know exactly why this happens, but high estrogen levels appear to be a factor.

Cervical polyps

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes cervical polyps, but possible reasons include:

  • congestion of blood vessels in the cervix, which disrupts blood flow and causes polyps to develop
  • infection or chronic inflammation of the cervix
  • using chemicals that irritate the cervix over a long time
  • high estrogen levels

Throat polyps

Causes of throat polyps include:

  • an injury from shouting loudly
  • damage due to gastroesophageal reflux
  • smoking
  • intense breathing activities
  • exposure to chemical substances

Nasal polyps

Nasal polyps are often triggered by inflammation, possibly due to a fungal or bacterial infection or an allergic reaction. They can also occur with an underlying condition, such as cystic fibrosis, or refractory nasal polyposis, which affects the sinuses.

Polyps grow through rapidly dividing cells, which is similar to how cancer cells grow. This is why they can become cancerous, even though most polyps are benign.

People who regularly stress their vocal cords or have acid reflux have a higher risk of throat polyps. But there are no known risk factors for aural polyps.

Men and people who smoke have a higher risk of bladder polyps. Bladder polyps are rare, and there is little evidence to show why they happen. However, the bladder has nicotine receptors, which means there is a higher chance of changes occurring in bladder cells. This can increase the risk of cancer due to smoking.

Talk with your doctor about your individual risk of polyps if you are concerned about a specific type.

Risks for colon polyps

Risk factors for colon polyps include:

  • having specific genetic features
  • having a hereditary condition, such as familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch syndrome
  • eating a high fat, low fiber diet
  • being older, as 30 percent of cases in the United States affect people over 50 years old
  • being male
  • having a family history of colon polyps and cancer
  • using tobacco and alcohol
  • having an intestinal inflammation disorder like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Black people have a higher occurrence of polyps than white people at a younger age, according to research published in 2015. The study authors called for screening to begin at age 45 for Black Americans rather than the current guideline of 50 years.

Black Americans also have a higher rate of and a 35 percent greater chance of dying from colorectal cancer than white Americans according to a 2018 article published in The American Journal of Pathology.

More research is needed to find out why this is so, but socioeconomic factors are likely to play a role. Since some polyps can become cancerous, earlier screening could help reduce this risk.

Risks for stomach polyps

The risk of stomach polyps increases with the following:

Risks for uterine polyps

You’re more likely to receive a diagnosis of uterine or endometrial polyps if you:

  • are over 60 years old
  • have high estrogen levels
  • have passed menopause
  • have symptoms, such as bleeding
  • have polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • have a history of using tamoxifen as a long-term therapy

Risks for cervical polyps

You are more likely to develop cervical polyps if you:

  • have not yet reached menopause
  • have been pregnant at least once, or multigravidaria
  • have a sexually transmitted infection
  • have already had cervical polyps in the past

Risks for nasal polyps

Nasal polyps are more likely to develop in people who experience the following conditions:

Risks for vocal cord polys

You may be more likely to develop vocal cord polyps if you:

  • stress your vocal cords, for example, by using your voice loudly
  • have sulcus vocalis, which is a groove on the side of the vocal cord
  • smoke
  • have exposure to certain chemical substances
  • have gastric reflux

Gallbladder polyps

Experts don’t know what the risk factors are for gallbladder polyps, but you may have a higher chance of developing them if you:

  • have a family history of gallbladder polyps
  • have Peutz-Jeghers or Gardner syndrome
  • have hepatitis B
  • inflammation due to repeated episodes of cholecystitis or acute biliary colic

People who have high levels of cholesterol or bile salts in their bile can develop structures that resemble polyps but are actually clumps of cholesterol that form on the gallbladder wall. They may appear before or alongside gallstones.

Sometimes called cholesterol or pseudo polyps, these account for 60 to 90 percent of polyp-type structures in the gallbladder.

Risks for bladder polyps

You may have a higher risk of bladder polyps if you are male and smoke tobacco.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history.

If your doctor suspects polyps, they will typically use imaging tests like X-rays, ultrasound, or a CT scan to see the affected area, which can help confirm a polyp’s presence and size.

The exact process will depend on the location of the polyps. Procedures to obtain a sample include:

  • an esophagogastroduodenoscopy or endoscopy for the small bowel and stomach
  • biopsy of areas that are easy to reach for taking a sample to analyze under a microscope
  • a colonoscopy for polyps throughout the colon
  • holding a mirror in the back of your mouth to check your vocal cords
  • a nasal endoscopy to evaluate polyps in the nasal cavity

In some cases, your doctor may want to perform a biopsy to find out if it is cancerous.

What are the risks of a polyp biopsy?

The treatment for polyps varies widely, depending on the type of polyps and where they are. In most cases, a doctor will remove them.

Some polyps won’t require treatment because they are unlikely to be harmful. Throat polyps typically go away on their own with rest and voice therapy. A doctor will sometimes remove polyps surgically as a precaution against the future development of cancer.

Treatment for polyps depends on a number of factors, including:

  • whether the polyps are likely to be cancerous
  • the number of polyps
  • where they are
  • their size

In the case of colorectal polyps, a doctor will remove the polyps during a colonoscopy, because they cannot tell by looking if the polyps will be cancerous.

A colonoscopy is when your doctor uses a thin tube with a camera attached to look at the inside of your rectum and large intestine. Doctors recommend routine screening colonoscopies, as they can help find and remove polyps before cancer can develop.

Your doctor may prescribe progestin and gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists for hormone-related polyps, like cervical and uterine polyps. These drugs will tell your body to create more hormones to shrink or reduce the polyps.

Nasal steroids or corticosteroid treatments may help treat nasal polyps.

Your doctor will use the least invasive treatment before opting for surgical interventions.

Here, find out more about removing uterine polyps.

It’s not always possible to prevent polyps, but knowing and avoiding some risk factors may help prevent some types of polyps.

Knowing about some risk factors may help reduce the chance of developing some types, such as colon polyps, which could minimize your risk of colorectal cancer.

Preventive steps include:

  • asking your doctor about a routine screening colonoscopy
  • eating a nutrient-dense diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grain cereals
  • limiting your consumption of alcohol
  • avoiding tobacco use
  • exercising regularly to maintain a moderate body weight

Talk with your doctor about additional steps you can take to prevent polyps, especially if you have a family history of polyps.

Noncancerous polyps and polyps with no symptoms usually don’t require any intervention, unless they interfere with your daily activities. Your doctor may recommend “watchful waiting” by monitoring the polyps to ensure they don’t develop further. They’ll also be able to tell you when or if you should have surgery to remove the polyps.

If you’re concerned about polyps, you can:

  • Find out more about your family history of polyps and discuss them with your doctor.
  • Keep updated medical records of any previous tests and imaging studies regarding your diagnosis.
  • Follow up with your doctor if you’ve had the polyps removed to make sure you’re clear.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of polyps and seek treatment when they appear.

Colon polyps will need increased surveillance, such as more frequent screening colonoscopies. Talk with your doctor about how often you should be screened. The screening frequency depends on:

  • the type of polyps
  • how many there are
  • family history

Your doctor will discuss the outlook for your particular diagnosis. The outlook for diagnosis of polyps depends on

  • the type of polyps
  • whether they’re cancerous
  • your overall health

Most benign polyps are unlikely to cause problems in the future, but your doctor may suggest removing them as a precaution.

Benign polyps can sometimes develop into cancerous ones or interfere with your life by causing discomfort or other symptoms. A person with uterine polyps may have a higher chance of fertility problems, and nasal polyps can lead to persistent stuffiness.

Colon polyps can indicate a higher chance of having colorectal cancer.

If you have a colon polyp measuring 1 centimeter that develops for no specific reason, there is an 8 percent chance it could become cancerous after 10 years and a 24 percent risk after 20 years. It is a good idea to follow your doctor’s advice about following up on colon polyps and other types that could become cancerous.

Polyps can affect different parts of the body, including the colon, the uterus, the nose, and the ears. Most polyps are harmless, but some can become cancerous over time.

If you notice polyps developing or have concerns about symptoms such as bleeding from the rectum or the vagina, it is best to seek medical advice.