What are polyps?

Polyps are abnormal tissue growths that most often look like small, flat bumps or tiny mushroomlike stalks. Most polyps are small and less than half an inch wide.

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

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, and 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
aural ear canalloss of hearing and blood drainage from the ear
cervical cervix, where the uterus connects to the vaginatypically no symptoms, but can include bleeding during menstruation (heavier) or sex, or an unusual discharge
colorectal (colon)large intestine, colon, and rectumblood in stool, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea
nasal nose or near sinusessimilar to the common cold such as headache, nose pain, loss of smell
gastric (stomach)stomach and stomach liningnausea, pain, tenderness, vomiting, bleeding
endometrial (uterine)uterus, usually uterine lininginfertility, irregular menstrual bleeding, vaginal bleeding
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

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.

The causes of polyps can vary based on their location. For example, throat polyps are usually a result of an injury from shouting loudly or damage from a breathing tube. And sometimes doctors can’t determine the cause of polyps.

Some known causes include:

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.

Men and people who smoke have a higher risk for bladder polyps. Women over 40 years of age and women who have had children are more likely to develop polyps in the uterus.

For cervical polyps, the risk increases in women over 20 years or age and women who are premenopausal.

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

Talk to your doctor about your individual risks for polyps if you are concerned about a specific type.

Risks for colon polyps

For colon polyps, the risk factors include:

  • eating a high-fat, low-fiber diet
  • being over 50 years of age
  • having a family history of colon polyps and cancer
  • using tobacco and alcohol
  • having an intestinal inflammation disorder like Crohn’s disease
  • being obese
  • not getting enough exercise
  • having type 2 diabetes that isn’t well-managed

African-Americans are also at a higher risk of developing colon polyps.

Risks for stomach polyps

The risk for stomach polyps increases with the following:

Risks for nasal polyps

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

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 like X-rays, ultrasound, or a CT scan to see the affected area, which can help confirm a polyp’s presence and size.

When you have a polyp, your doctor may want to perform a biopsy to find out if it is cancerous.

What are the risks of a polyp biopsy? »

Depending on where the polyp or polyps are located, various procedures are used to obtain a sample. These includes:

  • a Pap test to check for polyps in the vagina or cervix
  • an esophagogastroduodenoscopy or endoscopy for the small bowel and stomach
  • biopsy of areas that are easy to reach so a sample can be taken and analyzed under a microscope
  • a colonoscopy for polyps located in the large bowel
  • holding a mirror in the back of your mouth to check your vocal cords

Some polyps won’t require treatment, especially if your doctor says they aren’t harmful. Throat polyps typically go away on their own with rest and voice therapy. Others may be surgically removed as a precaution against the future development of cancer.

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

  • whether or not the polyps are cancerous
  • how many polyps are found
  • where they are located
  • their size

In the case of colorectal polyps, a doctor may remove the polyps during a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is when your doctor uses a thin tube with a camera attached to look at the insides of your rectum and large intestine.

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 to treat nasal polyps.

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

Your doctor will discuss the outlook for your particular diagnosis. The outlook for polyps depends upon the type of polyps, if they are cancerous, and your overall health. Most benign polyps are normally nothing to worry about, but your doctor may suggest removing them as a precaution.

It’s possible for benign polyps to develop into cancerous ones, or interfere with your life by causing infertility from uterine polyps or persistent stuffiness from nasal polyps.

The chance that polyps will reappear is slim, but colon polyps recur in 30 percent of people who have had them removed. Your doctor will recommend follow-up procedures, usually within 3 to 5 years.

Polyps can’t always be prevented. This is the case for some polyp types such as nasal and uterine polyps.

But a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of developing colon polyps and minimize your risk of colorectal cancer.

Preventive steps include:

  • eating a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain cereals
  • limiting your consumption of alcohol
  • refraining from using tobacco.
  • exercising regularly to maintain a healthy body weight

Talk to 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 day to day 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.