Everything You Need to Know About Bowel Polyps
You may have bowel polyps right now and not even know it. These growths may be in your large intestine, but they typically do not cause any pain or distress. Many people with bowel polyps do not show any symptoms. How do you know if you have them?
What Are Bowel Polyps?
Bowel polyps are small clusters of cells that form growths in the lining of the colon or rectum. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes; polyps can be flat, raised, or even grow on a stalk. A person may have one polyp or many. It may sound concerning to have abnormal cell growth in your body, but many cases of bowel polyps are harmless. These cell clusters are a common issue, affecting 20% to 30% of people at some point in their life.
Types of Bowel Polyps
There are two main types of bowel polyps:
These types of polyps are lower on the concern scale—they do not have the potential to become cancer. Non-neoplastic polyps include hyperplastic polyps (the vast majority of bowel polyps), inflammatory polyps and hamartomatous polyps.
Neoplastic polyps are the ones that may cause greater concern because there is a possibility that these types eventually become cancer (although it usually takes years for cancer to form). Polyps that fall into this category are adenomatous, carcinomatous and serrated. Some say the larger the neoplastic polyp, the greater the cancer risk, but a doctor will verify whether cancer is a concern to you.
Is There a Cause?
Unfortunately, you may get bowel polyps and your doctor may not be able to tell you why. Research has not nailed down an exact cause, so explanations of their origin are speculative at this point. What we do know is that polyps form when the body produces too many cells in the lining of the bowel. It’s thought that polyps are the result of gene mutations in the cells lining of the colon and bowel; these cells do not follow the normal cell life cycle. While the studies do not show why these cell clusters happen, there are some risk factors that may influence whether a person gets bowel polyps or not.
Risk Factors to Be Aware Of
Part of your baseline health is a result of how you take care of yourself. This includes what you eat, the amount of exercise you get and whether or not you drink or smoke. If you are taking care of yourself properly, your risk for bowel polyps and other health issues go down. However, no matter how well you take care of yourself, anyone can develop bowel polyps.
Some risk factors for bowel polyps:
- A personal or family history of bowel polyps or bowel cancer
- Being over the age of 50
- Being male (bowel polyps are only slightly more common in men)
- Being of an African American ethnicity
- Having a health condition that affects your gut, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Having type 2 diabetes that is not under control
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The Symptoms of Bowel Polyps
You may not know you have bowel polyps because they usually do not present any symptoms. There are a few instances where you may start to notice some symptoms:
- Abdominal pain. Polyps may obstruct your bowel, causing cramps and pain.
- Diarrhea or constipation. Changes in your bowel habits for more than a week may indicate that there are bowel polyps present.
- Rectal bleeding or presence of mucus. Bigger polyps may cause blood or mucus to appear in your stool.
- Change in stool color. Blood in your bowel may make your stool appear black or streaked with red.
- Iron deficiency anemia. Polyps may bleed without visible blood in your stool, but it occurs slowly over time, so you cannot see it. This constant bleeding means that the body does not get the iron it needs to produce red blood cells, making you feel tired and short of breath.
In some instances, you may also experience unexpected weight loss. If you find that you relate to any of the above symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor.
In most cases, bowel polyps are not discovered unless a person goes in for screening for bowel cancer or a routine colonoscopy. If you experience any symptoms, your doctor may send you to a gastrointestinal specialist for further examination. Diagnosis happens through screening and testing, including a sigmoidoscopy, stool test, colonoscopy, or CT scan.
Treating most bowel polyps is easy and quick but be aware that bowel polyps can come back after they have been removed.
Your gastrointestinal specialist will generally remove polyps they find during your colonoscopy. In this procedure, the colonoscope goes through your bottom and into your bowel so the doctor can see your colon and large intestine using the scope’s video. The colonoscope has an attached wire with an electric current that can be used to burn off or cut off the polyp. Both of these removal methods are pain-free.
In rare cases where there are cell changes to the polyp, the polyp is very large, or there are many polyps, another surgical option may be the preferred solution for your health. In some cases, the doctor may recommend surgically removing part of the bowel.
How to Prevent Bowel Polyps
The best advice out there is to make sure you undergo regular screening. Going for a colonoscopy helps find bowel polyps in the early stages, enabling them to be removed safely. Other advice for prevention:
- A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains (make sure to avoid processed foods and too much red meat)
- Cutting back or limiting alcohol and tobacco use
- Staying physically active
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Taking calcium and vitamin D (talk to your doctor before self-prescribing these supplements)
Bowel polyps do not typically turn into cancer, and for those that do become cancer, it takes several years to become cancer. Always go for screening appointments to ensure you are not overlooking any health issues.