Polyp vs. Cyst: What Are the Differences?

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It’s not uncommon to confuse polyps and cysts. Both are abnormal growths that can develop on nearly any part of the body and are generally harmless except in certain situations. But polyps and cysts differ in their material makeup, the types of symptoms they cause, and the treatment options available.

This article outlines the main differences between polyps and cysts, providing tips on when to see a healthcare provider for an official diagnosis.

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Polyps and cysts are two different types of abnormal tissue growths that can occur in various locations in the body.

A polyp is a tissue mass shaped like a stalk or finger, commonly found in the colon, uterus, nose, and throat, among other areas.

A cyst is a fluid-, air-, or tissue-filled sac commonly found under the skin, wrists, knees, ovaries, and breasts, along with other parts of the body. When a cyst becomes infected, it fills with pus and is known as an abscess.

Both can sometimes be asymptomatic, which means that you don't feel or notice them. But when they do cause symptoms, there are some variations.

Polyps vs. Cysts: Symptoms

Polyps and cysts cause different symptoms based on where they're located, including:


  • Bleeding
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Drainage or congestion
  • Nausea


  • Appearance of a lump under the skin
  • Pain and swelling
  • Infection
  • Pressure and bloating

Both types of abnormal masses can grow slowly over time or appear quickly.


Polyps and cysts can result from a range of different factors specific to the part of the body where they're located.


Polyp causes can vary based on where they are located in the body.

  • Genetic changes or family history
  • Inflammation
  • Foreign object
  • Tumor
  • Excess hormones, like estrogen 
  • Unknown cause


Common causes of cysts include:

  • Injury
  • Infection
  • Clogged sebaceous (skin) glands
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions
  • Hormonal issues or pregnancy
  • Genetics or family history


The process for diagnosing polyps and cysts is similar.

First, your healthcare provider will ask questions about the growth, such as how long it's been there, whether it's growing, and if it's causing any symptoms. Then, they'll perform a physical examination of the area, checking the growth's shape, size, and consistency (if it's visible).

From there, a healthcare provider may administer certain imaging tests to make a diagnosis. These diagnostic tools allow them to take a closer look at the spot in question. They might include:

The goal is to determine what the condition is, whether it's cancerous or benign, and which treatment options (if any) should be considered.


Though many polyps and cysts are not considered to be harmful, it’s still important to properly diagnose the growth so that appropriate treatment can be given, if needed. 


Polyp treatment will depend on where in the body they’re located, how large or disruptive they are, and whether they may have the potential to become cancerous.

If the polyps are not expected to cause damage, they may be left intact and monitored by your healthcare provider, or you may be prescribed medication to help reduce their size. Polyps that may be harmful will be removed through surgery.


Treating cysts can involve a monitoring approach or removal through surgery. Oftentimes, there is no treatment needed for a cyst because certain types tend to go away on their own.

But if the cyst is painful, becomes infected, interferes with other body parts or movements, or affects your quality of life, your healthcare provider may recommend the following treatment options to shrink or completely remove the cyst:


There are certain steps you can take to help prevent polyps and cysts from forming in the first place. These preventive measures will depend on where the growths are located in the body.


Some risk factors for developing polyps—like age or genetics for colon polyps—can’t be prevented.

However, experts do recommend certain lifestyle habits to help reduce the chances of developing polyps, including maintaining a healthy diet and weight, exercising regularly, and keeping up with routine medical screenings (if they're accessible to you).


Some of the risk factors for developing certain types of cysts—like genetics for ovarian cysts—can’t change.

Depending on the type of cyst, your healthcare provider may recommend measures such as exercising regularly, taking birth control to help manage hormone levels, and—to prevent the chances of cyst infection—keeping the skin clean.

Polyps and cysts are both abnormal growths of tissue that can develop in various locations in the body. Here's how they differ:


  • Tissue mass in the shape of a stalk with a ball on the end
  • Commonly form in the colon, uterus, nose, and throat
  • Typically benign, but can potentially become cancerous in the future


  • Tissue pouch or pocket filled with fluid, air, or pus
  • Commonly form under the skin, joints, ovaries, and breasts
  • Usually benign but can grow larger, cause pain, or become infected


Polyps and cysts are sometimes referred to interchangeably, but they're actually different types of abnormal growths. Though both can develop in many parts of the body, their symptoms, causes, and outcomes vary. Many polyps and cysts are not harmful, but certain kinds can cause damage or turn cancerous. This is why it's important to get a diagnosis from a healthcare provider so you can consider appropriate treatment options.

A Word From Verywell

Noticing a cyst on your skin or learning that you have a polyp on an internal organ can feel scary. But remember that these growths are common and have options for treatment if needed. Just make sure to check with a healthcare provider if you notice abnormal changes, pain, or signs of infection.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Family Physicians. Polyps.

  2. National Cancer Institute. Cyst.

  3. MedlinePlus. Nasal polyps.

  4. National Health Service UK. Bowel polyps.

  5. Harvard Health. Cysts (overview).

  6. MedlinePlus. Kidney cysts.

  7. MedlinePlus. Ovarian cysts.

  8. Better Health Channel Australia. Polyps.

  9. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of colon polyps.

  10. Better Health Channel Australia. Cysts.

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  12. Office on Women's Health. Ovarian cysts.

  13. MedlinePlus. Endometrial polyps.

By Cristina Mutchler
Cristina Mutchler is an award-winning journalist with more than a decade of experience in national media, specializing in health and wellness content.