While abnormal or heavy vaginal bleeding may be linked to a variety of conditions, these are also possible symptoms of uterine polyps. These growths aren’t usually harmful, but may interfere with fertility and lead to discomfort.

Learn more about the causes and symptoms of these common uterine growths, and how your doctor can properly diagnose and treat them.

A uterine (endometrial) polyp is a small, fleshy growth that can develop along the inner lining of the uterus (endometrium). On average, these polyps are typically less than 1 cm. It’s also possible to have more than one.

While uterine polyps are relatively common, they are rarely cancerous. However, they can cause issues, such as:

  • heavy bleeding
  • pain
  • infertility in premenopausal people
  • postmenopausal bleeding

If you have symptoms like abnormal bleeding or vaginal discharge, it’s important to see a doctor. They can help determine whether you have uterine polyps or another condition that may be causing similar symptoms.

There’s not a single known cause of uterine polyps, but it’s thought that high estrogen levels may play a role in their development. Obesity may also be a risk factor, due to higher amounts of estrogen released by body fat cells.

Age may also play a role in the development of uterine polyps. These polyps are rare in women under the age of 20. However, the incidence peaks between ages 40 and 49.

While the risk of developing uterine polyps decreases after menopause, when estrogen levels naturally drop, you may be at risk for these growths if you take tamoxifen therapy. In fact, it’s estimated that between 8 and 36 percent of postmenopausal women taking this therapy develop uterine polyps.

It’s also possible to have multiple uterine polyps, and some may grow along the lower part of the uterus, extending from the cervix.

Uterine polyps are known to cause irregular vaginal bleeding. This may lead to the following symptoms:

  • spotting or bleeding between periods
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • heavier menstruation
  • bleeding after menopause
  • menstrual-like cramps or pain

Any abnormal bleeding or discharge should be addressed with your doctor right away, especially if you’ve experienced symptoms for more than 2 weeks, or have already been through menopause.

While these symptoms may be related to uterine polyps, it’s important to rule out uterine cancer. Cancerous tumors may also cause pelvic pressure or pain.

Also, weight gain is not a common symptom of uterine polyps. Unusual weight gain may be seen in other gynecologic conditions, such as large ovarian cysts or fibroids.

Some people with uterine polyps may not have any symptoms. Instead, the growths may be incidental findings when ruling out other conditions, or if you’re having fertility challenges.

If uterine polyps are suspected, your doctor will need to locate them with the help of a small camera called a hysteroscope. During a procedure called a hysteroscopy, this tool is inserted inside the uterine cavity.

While an ultrasound may also help your doctor find uterine polyps, this diagnostic tool isn’t as reliable. This is especially the case if you still menstruate because a thickened uterine lining may incorrectly look like polyps on an ultrasound.

Your doctor may perform a series of tests based on your symptoms and medical history. They may also use screening tools to help rule out cancer and other conditions.

Possible options include:

  • Transvaginal ultrasound. This imaging test uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of your internal organs. It’s almost always performed before a biopsy.
  • Endometrial biopsy. With this procedure, a small sample of the polyp is taken and then sent to a lab for further analysis. The lab results determine whether the sample is cancerous.

During diagnosis for uterine polyps, your doctor will also be able to rule out other conditions that may contribute to heavier-than-normal or unusual vaginal bleeding, such as:

If your uterine polyps are asymptomatic and were incidental findings, your doctor may recommend a watchful waiting approach, depending on the size of the polyp. However, treatment is recommended for anyone who is experiencing symptoms.

The only way to treat uterine polyps is to remove them (polypectomy). Your doctor will send removed polyps to a laboratory for further analysis.

More than 95 percent of uterine polyps are benign. However, if any malignancy is detected, your doctor may recommend a hysterectomy to remove your uterus to stop the cancer from spreading.

Another option is an endometrial ablation, which is a procedure that destroys the uterine lining. This can help prevent polyp development while also resulting in lighter periods. Your doctor will only recommend endometrial ablation if you don’t plan to have any (more) children.

Uterine polyp removal is done with a noninvasive technique with the help of a hysteroscope. This is also called a polypectomy with hysteroscopic excision.

Depending on the location and number of the polyps, the procedure may be done with or without local or general anesthesia.

Like other types of polyps that may occur in the body, there’s a risk that these uterine growths may recur. Talk with your doctor about risk-reducing strategies that you can use to prevent their recurrence.

Doctors typically use hormonal medications or other procedures, such as endometrial ablations, to reduce the risk of polyp recurrence.

Uterine polyps are common growths that can develop at any age, but your risk may be greatest during your 40s. Unusual bleeding is the most common symptom, although some cases don’t cause any symptoms at all.

It’s not possible to self-diagnose uterine polyps, as many of the symptoms are similar to other conditions. This is why you should see a doctor if you’re experiencing any abnormal bleeding, including longer or heavier periods or vaginal bleeding after menopause.

Uterine polyps may be surgically removed. However, some cases may warrant other treatment options, especially in the rare event that cancerous cells are detected. It’s also possible for these polyps to return, so you should talk with your doctor about ongoing detection, risk-reducing or prevention strategies, and treatment.