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Colon Polyps

What are colon polyps?

A colon polyp is a potentially precancerous growth that grows inside your large intestine.  The large intestine, also called the colon, is part of your digestive system. It's a long, hollow tube at the end of your digestive tract where your body makes and stores stool.

Are polyps dangerous?

Most polyps are not dangerous. Most are benign, which means they are not cancer. But over time, some types of polyps can turn into cancer. Usually, polyps that are smaller than a pea aren't harmful. But larger polyps could someday become cancer or may already be cancer. To be safe, doctors remove all polyps and test them.

Who gets polyps?

Anyone can get polyps, but certain people are more likely than others. You may have a greater chance of getting polyps if

  • you're over 50. The older you get, the more likely you are to develop polyps.
  • you've had polyps before.
  • someone in your family has had polyps.
  • someone in your family has had cancer of the large intestine.

You may also be more likely to get polyps if you

  • eat a lot of fatty foods
  • smoke
  • drink alcohol
  • don't exercise
  • weigh too much

What are the symptoms?

Most small polyps don't cause symptoms. Often, people don't know they have one until the doctor finds it during a colon cancer screening test such as a colonoscopy, or while undergoing a colonoscopy for another reason.

But some people do have symptoms, such as:

  • bleeding from the rectum. You might notice blood on your underwear or on toilet paper after you've had a bowel movement.
  • blood in the stool. Blood can make stool look black, or it can show up as red streaks in the stool.

If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor to find out what the problem is.

How does the doctor check for colon polyps?

The best way to check for colon polyps is with a colonoscopy.  With this test, the doctor puts a thin, flexible tube that has a light and tiny video camera attached, into your rectum.   The tube is inserted completely so that the entire lining of the large intestine lining is examined.  If polyps are noted, they can be removed at the time of the colonoscopy.  This procedure is performed with sedation or anesthesia, to ensure that you will be completely comfortable throughout the entire examination.  Another way to examine for polyps is with an xray test such as a CT scan or a barium enema, but they are not as accurate as a complete colonoscopy.

Who should get tested for polyps?

Talk to your doctor about getting tested for polyps if

  • you have symptoms
  • you're 50 years old or older
  • someone in your family has had polyps or colon cancer

How are polyps treated?

The doctor will remove the polyp. Sometimes, the doctor takes it out during sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Or the doctor may decide to operate through the abdomen. The polyp is then tested for cancer.

If you've had polyps, the doctor may want you to get tested regularly in the future.

How can I prevent polyps?

Doctors don't know of any one sure way to prevent polyps. But you might be able to lower your risk of getting them if you

  • eat more fruits and vegetables and less fatty food
  • don't smoke
  • avoid alcohol
  • exercise every day
  • lose weight if you're overweight

Eating more calcium and folate can also lower your risk of getting polyps. Some foods that are rich in calcium are milk, cheese, and broccoli. Some foods that are rich in folate are chickpeas, kidney beans, and spinach.

Some doctors think that aspirin might help prevent polyps. Studies are under way.

Points to Remember

  • A colon polyp is extra tissue that grows inside the large intestine.
  • Symptoms may include blood on your underwear, on toilet paper, or in your stool.
  • Most polyps do not cause symptoms.
  • Doctors remove all polyps and test them for cancer or precancerous change.
  • Talk to your doctor about getting tested for polyps if
    • you have any symptoms
    • you're 50 years old or older
    • someone in your family has had polyps or colon cancer

For More Information

American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons
85 West Algonquin Road, Suite 550
Arlington Heights, IL 60005
Phone: 847–290–9184
Email: ascrs@fascrs.org
Internet: www.fascrs.org

National Cancer Institute
Cancer Information Service
Building 31, Room 10A16
31 Center Drive, MSC 2580
Bethesda, MD 20892–2580
Phone: 1–800–422–6237 or 301–496–6631
Internet: www.nci.nih.gov

Reprinted and edited from the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

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