Colorectal polyps are closely associated with colon cancer, the third most common cancer in the US. Getting checked regularly can help catch potentially dangerous polyps early and save lives.

What are colorectal polyps?

Colorectal polyps, also often called colon polyps, are small growths on the inner lining of your large intestine. The may be scattered through your colon. They can vary in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters and can have either a raised or flat appearance. Raised polyps may be small bumps, have a bunched appearance like cauliflower or grow on small stalks.

Types of colorectal polyps

Polyps fall into a number of types. These include:

  • inflammatory polyps. These polyps often show up after a flare-up of ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease. While these polyps are not a significant threat on their own, having either of the above conditions raises your odds of developing colon cancer.
  • serrated or hyperplastic polyps. These polyps can show up in different areas of the colon. Ones that are in the lower colon rarely become malignant. Those that are larger or located in the upper colon can be considered precancerous.
  • adenomatous polyps. This type accounts for roughly two-thirds of colorectal polyps. A significant portion of these become cancerous if left untreated.

The vast majority of polyps are not cancerous or pre-cancerous. However, since it is hard to determine the nature of a colorectal polyp during an exam, they are removed and sent to a lab for testing.

Causes of colorectal polyps

The healthy cells in our body grow and divide in an orderly way. When mutations occur in certain ways, they can cause cells to continue dividing even when there is not a need for new cells. Polyps can develop anywhere in the large intestine. In general, the larger the polyp, the higher the chance of it being or becoming cancerous.

There are a number of factors that can raise your risk of polyps.

You are at a higher risk for colorectal polyps if you are age 50 or older or have a family history of colon cancer. Obesity and a lack of exercise are associated with a higher risk of polyps. Poorly controlled type 2 diabetes increases your risk. You may also have a higher risk if you smoke or drink alcohol.

Symptoms of colorectal polyps

Often, people will not experience any symptoms related to polyps. Many people do not know they have them until they go in for a colonoscopy screening. However, some people experience symptoms which include:

  • rectal bleeding.
  • a change in bowel habits. Either constipation or diarrhea can be a sign of a polyp.
  • changes in stool color. Blood can show up either as red streaks or a black color in the stool.
  • iron deficient anemia. If a blood test shows a lack of iron, polyps can be the cause.
  • abdominal pain.
  • nausea and vomiting.

Colorectal polyps treatment

Polyps are removed during colonoscopy when they are found during screening for colon cancer. If the polyps are too large to be removed during screening, your doctor may recommend minimally invasive surgery instead. If you have an inherited syndrome that significantly increases your risk, colon and rectum removal surgery may be recommended.

Because of the lack of symptoms most people experience, regular screenings for colorectal polyps is key. Talk to your doctor about when you should be screened.