National Digestive Diseases
Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)

A service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institutes of Health (NIH)

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What I need to know about Colon Polyps

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What are colon polyps?
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Colon polyps* are extra pieces of tissue that grow on the lining of the colon or rectum. The colon and rectum are parts of the large intestine. The large intestine absorbs water from stool and changes it from a liquid to a solid form. Stool is the solid waste that passes through the rectum and anus as a bowel movement.

Colon polyps can be raised or flat. Raised colon polyps are growths shaped like mushrooms. They look as though they are on a stem or stalk. Flat colon polyps look like a bed of moss. Sometimes, a person can have more than one colon polyp.

Drawing of the digestive tract with labels for the large intestine, colon, rectum, and anus. Inset shows a section of colon with a raised and a flat polyp.
Colon polyps

*See the Pronunciation Guide for tips on how to say the words in bold type.

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Colon and Rectal Cancer
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Colon and rectal cancer usually start from polyps. Over time, some polyps can become cancerous. Removing polyps can help prevent cancer of the colon and rectum.

Read more at www.cancer.gov.

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Who develops colon polyps?
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Anyone can develop colon polyps; however, some people are more likely to develop them than others. You may have a greater chance of developing polyps if

  • you’re 50 years of age or older
  • you’ve had polyps before
  • someone in your family has had polyps or cancer of the colon or rectum

If you’re African American, you are more likely to develop cancerous polyps. You are also more likely to develop cancerous polyps before age 50.

People with certain health problems are more likely to develop polyps. You may have a greater chance of developing polyps if you have

  • inflammatory bowel diseasethe general name for diseases that cause inflammation and irritation in the intestines. The most common types of inflammatory bowel disease are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
  • type 2 diabetes. Diabetes means your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. Type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset diabetes, is the most common form of diabetes.
  • a history of breast, uterine, or ovarian cancer.

Drawing of a father and son talking.
You may have a greater chance of polyps if someone in your family has had polyps.

You may also be more likely to develop colon polyps if you

  • weigh too much
  • eat a lot of fatty foods; red meats, such as beef and pork; or processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and lunch meats
  • don’t exercise
  • smoke cigarettes
  • drink alcohol

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Who should be screened for colon polyps?
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Most people should start colon polyp screening at age 50. African Americans should start screening at age 45. Screening is testing for diseases when you have no symptoms. Finding and removing polyps can help prevent cancer of the colon or rectum.

Your doctor may recommend screening before age 45 or 50 if

  • you have symptoms
  • someone in your family has had polyps or cancer of the colon or rectum
  • you have other factors that increase your chances for developing polyps

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What are the signs and symptoms of colon polyps?
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Most people with colon polyps do not have symptoms. However, some people do have signs and 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 your stool. Blood can make stool look black, or blood can show up as red streaks in your stool.
  • feeling tired because you have anemiafewer red blood cells than normal—and a lack of iron in your body. Bleeding from colon polyps can lead to anemia and a lack of iron.

Many other problems can cause these signs and symptoms. If you have any of these signs or symptoms, see your doctor. If you have bleeding from the rectum or blood in your stool, you should contact your doctor right away.

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How does my doctor know if I have colon polyps?
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Your doctor may use the following to find out if you have colon polyps:

Doctors may also find polyps while testing for other problems.

Medical and Family History

Taking a medical and family history is one of the first things a doctor may do to help determine which test is best for you.

Physical Exam

After taking a medical and family history, your doctor will perform a physical exam. During a physical exam, a doctor usually

  • examines your body
  • uses a stethoscope to listen to sounds in your abdomenthe area between the chest and hips
  • taps on specific areas of your body

Drawing of a female doctor talking with a male patient.

Stool Test

A stool test is the analysis of a sample of stool. Your doctor will give you a test kit and instructions. For some tests, you may need to change your diet for a few days before the test. You return the test kit to your doctor or to a commercial facility that will send the sample to a lab for analysis. Stool tests can show the presence of blood or other signs of colon polyps.

Flexible Sigmoidoscopy

Flexible sigmoidoscopy is a test that uses a flexible, narrow tube with a light and tiny camera on one end to look inside the rectum and the lower colon. This tube is called a sigmoidoscope. The test can show irritated or swollen tissue, ulcers, and polyps. A doctor performs this test at a hospital, a health care facility, or an office. Most people will not need a sedative for the test.

For the test, you will lie on a table while your doctor inserts a flexible tube into your anus. A small camera on the tube sends a video image of the intestinal lining to a computer screen. The tube has a tool that can remove polyps. Your doctor usually removes polyps found during flexible sigmoidoscopy. A pathologist—a doctor who specializes in diagnosing diseases—will check the tissue for cancer.

Colonoscopy

Colonoscopy is a test that uses a long, flexible, narrow tube with a light and tiny camera on one end to look inside the rectum and entire colon. This tube is called a colonoscope. Colonoscopy can show irritated or swollen tissue, ulcers, and polyps. A gastroenterologista doctor who specializes in digestive diseases—performs this test at a hospital or an outpatient center. In most cases, you will receive sedation and pain medicines to help you relax for the test.

For the test, you will lie on a table while your doctor inserts a flexible tube into your anus. A small camera on the tube sends a video image of the intestinal lining to a computer screen. The tube has a tool that can remove polyps. Your doctor usually removes polyps found during colonoscopy. A pathologist will check the tissue for cancer.

Drawing of a female patient receiving a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy.
Colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy testing

Virtual Colonoscopy

This test uses computerized tomography (CT) to look inside the rectum and colon. CT machines use a combination of x rays and computer technology to create images. Virtual colonoscopy can show irritated or swollen tissue, ulcers, and polyps. A radiologista doctor who specializes in medical imaging—performs the test at a hospital or an outpatient center.

For the test, you will lie on a table while the radiologist inserts a thin tube into your anus and rectum. The tube inflates the intestine with air for a better view. The table will slide into a tunnel-shaped device where the radiologist takes x rays.

Lower Gastrointestinal Series

A lower GI series uses x rays and a chalky liquid called barium to look at your large intestine. An x-ray technician performs the test at a hospital or an outpatient center.

For the test, you will lie on a table while your doctor inserts a flexible tube into your anus. A radiologist will fill your large intestine with barium and air, which makes polyps show up more clearly on x rays.

Barium liquid in your GI tract causes stools to be white or light colored for a few days after the test. Your doctor will tell you about eating and drinking after the test.

A radiologist will review the x rays and send the results to your doctor.

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How are colon polyps treated?
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Doctors treat colon polyps by removing them. In most cases, the doctor uses special tools to remove colon polyps during colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy. Doctors may use a special method called endoscopic mucosal resection to remove some larger polyps, especially large flat polyps. Doctors can remove almost all polyps without surgery.

After the doctor removes polyps, he or she sends them for testing to find out if they are cancerous.

If you have colon polyps, your doctor will ask you to have regular testing in the future.

Drawing of the digestive tract with labels for the large intestine, colon, rectum, and anus. Inset shows a colonoscope removing a raised polyp from the colon.
The doctor uses special tools to remove colon polyps during colonoscopy.

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Seek Immediate Care
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If you have any of the following symptoms after the removal of a colon polyp, you should call your doctor immediately:

  • severe pain in the abdomen
  • fever
  • bloody bowel movements that do not improve or bleeding from the anus that does not stop
  • dizziness
  • weakness

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How can I prevent colon polyps?
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Researchers don’t know of one sure way to prevent colon polyps. However, you might be able to lower your chances with

  • eating, diet, and nutrition changes
  • healthy lifestyle choices
  • aspirin

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Eating, Diet, and Nutrition
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You may lower your chances of developing polyps by

  • losing weight if you’re overweight
  • eating more fruits and vegetables
  • eating less fatty food, red meat, and processed meat

Drawing of a woman shopping for produce.

Some research suggests that calcium and vitamin D may lower your chances of developing polyps. Some foods rich in calcium are milk, cheese, yogurt, and broccoli. Foods that contain vitamin D include eggs, liver, and certain kinds of fish, such as salmon. Some companies add vitamin D to milk and milk products. Also, being outside in the sunlight helps your body make vitamin D. You can also talk with your doctor about taking calcium or vitamin D supplements.

For safety reasons, talk with your doctor before using dietary supplements or any other nonmainstream medicine together with or in place of the treatment your doctor prescribes. Read more at www.ods.od.nih.gov and www.nccam.nih.gov.

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Healthy Lifestyle Choices

You can make the following healthy lifestyle choices to help lower your chances of colon polyps:

  • exercise most days of the week
  • don’t smoke cigarettes
  • avoid drinking alcohol

Drawing of a woman walking her dog.

Aspirin

Taking a low dose of aspirin every day might help prevent polyps. However, taking aspirin daily may cause side effects, such as bleeding in the stomach or intestines. Talk with your doctor before starting to take aspirin daily.

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Points to Remember
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  • Colon polyps are extra pieces of tissue that grow on the lining of the colon or rectum.
  • Colon and rectal cancer usually start from polyps. Over time, some polyps can become cancerous. Removing polyps can help prevent cancer of the colon and rectum.
  • Most people should start colon polyp screening at age 50. African Americans should start screening at age 45. Finding and removing polyps can help prevent cancer of the colon or rectum.
  • Most people with colon polyps do not have symptoms.
  • Your doctor may use the following to find out if you have colon polyps:
    • medical and family history
    • physical exam
    • stool test
    • flexible sigmoidoscopy
    • colonoscopy
    • virtual colonoscopy
    • lower gastrointestinal (GI) series
  • Doctors treat colon polyps by removing them.

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Hope through Research
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The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases’ (NIDDK’s) Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition supports research into digestive conditions, including colon polyps.

Clinical trials are research studies involving people. Clinical trials look at safe and effective new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease. Researchers also use clinical trials to look at other aspects of care, such as improving the quality of life for people with chronic illnesses. To learn more about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate, visit the NIH Clinical Research Trials and You website at www.nih.gov/health/clinicaltrials. For information about current studies, visit www.ClinicalTrials.gov.

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Pronunciation Guide
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abdomen (AB-doh-men)

anemia (uh-NEE-mee-uh)

anus (AY-nuhss)

barium (BA-ree-uhm)

calcium (KAL-see-uhm)

colonoscopy (KOH-lon-OSS-kuh-pee)

colon polyps (KOH-lon) (POL-ips)

computerized tomography (kom-PYOO-tur-eyezd) (toh-MOG-ruh-fee)

Crohn’s disease (krohnz) (dih-ZEEZ)

endoscopic mucosal resection (en-DUH-skuh-pik) (myu-KOH-suhl) (rih-SEK-shuhn)

flexible sigmoidoscopy (FLEK-suh-buhl) (SIG-moy-DOSS-kuh-pee)

gastroenterologist (GASS-troh-EN-tur-OL-uh-jist)

gastrointestinal (GASS-troh-in-TESS-tin-uhl)

inflammatory bowel disease (in-FLAM-uh-toh-ree) (boul) (dih-ZEEZ)

intestine (in-TESS-tin)

radiologist (RAY-dee-OL-uh-jist)

rectum (REK-tuhm)

supplements (SUH-pluh-muhnts)

ulcerative colitis (UHL-sur-uh-tiv) (koh-LY-tiss)

virtual (VUR-chuh-wuhl)

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For More Information
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American College of Gastroenterology
6400 Goldsboro Road, Suite 200
Bethesda, MD 20817
Phone: 301–263–9000
Fax: 301–263–9025
Email: info@acg.gi.org
Internet: www.gi.org leaving site icon

American Gastroenterological Association
4930 Del Ray Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814
Phone: 301–654–2055
Fax: 301–654–5920
Email: member@gastro.org
Internet: www.gastro.org leaving site icon

American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy
3300 Woodcreek Drive
Downers Grove, IL 60515
Phone: 1–866–353–ASGE (1–866–353–2743) or 630–573–0600
Fax: 630–963–8332
Email: info@asge.org
Internet: www.asge.org leaving site icon

National Cancer Institute
BG 9609 MCS 9760
9609 Medical Center Drive
Bethesda, MD 20892
Phone: 1–800–4–CANCER (1–800–422–6237)
Internet: www.cancer.gov

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Acknowledgments
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Publications produced by the Clearinghouse are carefully reviewed by both NIDDK scientists and outside experts. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) would like to thank the following individuals for assisting with the scientific and editorial review of the original version of this publication:

C. Richard Boland, M.D.
University of California at San Diego

Francis M. Giardiello, M.D.
Johns Hopkins Hospital

The NDDIC would like to thank Michael B. Wallace, M.D., Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, FL, for his review of the updated version of this publication.

Thank you also to Anne Barker, R.N., B.S.N., at the Health Alliance, Columbia, MD, for facilitating field-testing of the original version of this publication.

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National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse

2 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3570
Phone: 1–800–891–5389
TTY: 1–866–569–1162
Fax: 703–738–4929
Email: nddic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov

The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1980, the Clearinghouse provides information about digestive diseases to people with digestive disorders and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. The NDDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about digestive diseases.

This publication is not copyrighted. The Clearinghouse encourages users of this publication to duplicate and distribute as many copies as desired.

This publication may contain information about medications and, when taken as prescribed, the conditions they treat. When prepared, this publication included the most current information available. For updates or for questions about any medications, contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration toll-free at 1–888–INFO–FDA (1–888–463–6332) or visit www.fda.gov. Consult your health care provider for more information.


NIH Publication No. 14–4977
May 2014

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Page last updated June 18, 2014


The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
2 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3570
Phone: 1–800–891–5389
TTY: 1–866–569–1162
Fax: 703–738–4929
Email: nddic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov

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