What is a polyp?
A polyp is a projecting growth of tissue from a surface in the body, usually a mucous membrane. Polyps can develop in the:
- colon and rectum
- ear canal
What causes polyps?
Polyps are caused by abnormal growth of cells and often there is no obvious cause.
People may or may not have obvious symptoms if they have polyps. Some common symptoms include:
- ear canal polyps - loss of hearing and bloody discharge from the ear
- cervical polyps - typically no symptoms but can include abnormal bleeding or unusual discharge
- colorectal polyps - blood in stool, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhoea
- nasal polyps - a feeling like a cold that won't go away, headaches, nose pain or loss of smell
- uterine polyps - irregular menstrual bleeding and infertility
- stomach polyps - pain, tenderness, nausea, vomiting or bleeding
- throat polyps - hoarse and breathy voice that develops over days to weeks
- bladder polyps - blood in urine or painful and frequent urination
Polyps and cancer
Most polyps are benign, which means they are harmless. But because polyps are caused by abnormal cell growth and, like cancer, grow through rapidly dividing cells, they can become malignant.
A doctor can determine whether a polyp is malignant or benign by performing a biopsy (sending a tissue sample for examination by a pathologist). If the polyp is difficult to reach, for example in the colon, you may be referred for a more invasive procedure like a colonoscopy.
Some people have a higher than normal chance of having polyps because of their family history. If you are at risk or concerned about polyps, talk to your doctor. Regular medical tests or other types of surveillance may be suggested if you have a family history. All Australians aged 50 and over are at increased risk of developing precancerous bowel polyps and should screen every two years with a free faecal occult blood test, as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
Eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, avoiding smoking and reducing alcohol intake will also reduce the risk of some polyps, particularly those that develop into bowel cancer.
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