What You'll Learn Here:
A polyp is an extra piece of bodily tissue that looks a lot like an inflated balloon, with the tied off end attached to the place it’s growing from. Colon polyps, also known as colonic polyps, grow in the part of the digestive tract known as the colon or large intestine.
While most polyps are harmless, some can be cancerous or develop into cancer, which is why most health care providers encourage the removal and testing of polyps.
Smaller polyps (pea-sized) aren’t normally problematic. However, the larger a polyp grows, the more likely it is to become cancerous. The incidence of colon cancer is substantially reduced when polyps are screened for, and removed.
Colon Polyp Predicators
Colonic polyps are very common. As individuals age, they become more likely to develop them. Estimates indicate that fifty percent of individuals over the age of sixty will have at least one polyp.1
While anyone can develop colon polyps, there is a greater likelihood of getting them if you are over fifty years of age, have had polyps before, have a family member with colonic polyps, or have a family history of colon cancer.
Some research indicates that diets high in fatty foods increase the incidence of developing colon polyps, as does excess weight, too little exercise, alcohol, and smoking.
What Are the Symptoms of Colon Polyps?
Most people do not experience any symptoms from colon polyps. For those who do, however, symptoms may include
- Bleeding from the anus that may cause blood on your underwear, or on toilet paper after a bowel movement
- Blood in stool; black-looking, or red-streaked stool
- Constipation lasting more than a week
- Diarrhea lasting more than a week
Screening for Colon Polyps
Regular testing is advised for those who’ve had polyps before. Because an individual with a first degree relative with an adenomatous (growths of glandular origin) polyp has a one and one-half times greater risk of developing colonic cancer than one without, testing is strongly recommended for those with a family member with colonic polyps, or a family history of colon cancer.
A yearly digital rectal exam (DRE) to detect tumors large enough to be felt in the part of the rectum accessible by a gloved finger is recommended. Depending on the findings, further testing may be necessary to screen for polyps higher up in the intestine.
A double contrast barium enema (DCBE) – a thin layer of barium over the inner lining of the colon is visible on X-ray film – is another screen for polyps. Barium gives the intestine a white appearance in the images, and any polyps would appear dark by contrast.
Polyps sometimes bleed into the intestine when they become larger, and the blood that ends up in stool isn’t always easily detectable. For this reason, it is recommended that beginning at the age of forty, individuals have a stool specimen tested each year.
Beginning at age fifty, a flexible sigmoidoscopy screening test is recommended every three to five years. If a polyp or cancer is found, a complete colonoscopy (views the rectum and entire colon) is advisable. Colon polyps can be immediately removed during this exam, and tissue can be removed for biopsy purposes.
To prevent colon cancers in individuals with hereditary colon cancer syndromes such as nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), attenuated familial adenomatous polyposis (AFAP), and MYH gene-associated polyposis (MAP), screening ought to begin much earlier – during puberty in some instances.
Colon Polyp Prevention
While some experts believe that a low fiber/high fat diet can predispose people to developing colon polyps, study findings do not confirm this suggestion.
However, health care professionals still recommend reducing fatty food intake and increasing the number of fruits and vegetables consumed as a preventive. Certain vegetables – particularly those of the cruciferous family such as kale, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kohlrabi, mustard greens, and turnip greens – are said to protect against colon cancer.
Additionally, eating more calcium and folate can reduce your risk of developing colon polyps. Examples of foods rich in calcium are milk, cheese, and broccoli; foods rich in folate include chickpeas, kidney beans, and spinach2.
Vitamins C and E are believed to protect against colon cancer. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin, can reduce the formation of polyps. Losing excess weight, exercising, and avoiding alcohol and smoking are also believed to be preventives to developing colonic polyps.