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How to spot the difference between haemorrhoids and bowel cancer

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As the second most deadly form of cancer, bowel cancer is a real concern in the UK, and with around 41,000 people diagnosed with it each year, it is important that awareness is raised as much as possible to ensure that people are as vigilant as they can be. 

Both men and women are affected by bowel cancer equally, but as with any illness, the effects are much farther reaching than on just the individual. Living healthily and taking care of your body as much as possible is one of the most important prevention methods, but being aware of symptoms and signs is always going to be vital – the earlier you get the diagnosis, the better able to handle it you’ll be. Strangely, a number of people make the mistake of self-diagnosing themselves with haemorrhoids (piles), when in reality they have the far more serious condition - bowel cancer.  So what is the difference between the two conditions?


Haemorrhoids (piles):

Haemorrhoids or piles are soft swellings that sit around the anus. They can appear in two forms – external or internal. External piles form round the outside of the anus whereas internal piles form inside the anus. Although piles can cause many symptoms, the most common symptoms include:


  • Itching or tender lumps around the anus
  • Discomfort when passing stools
  • A heavy dragging sensation around the anus
  • Spotting or bleeding from the back passage (the blood will be bright red)
  • A lump hanging outside the anus.


It is thought that 50% of people will experience haemorrhoids at some stage in their lives, and they are more like to occur as you get older. This is because the lining of the anus becomes less supportive. There are several risk factors that can increase your chances of developing piles. They include: regularly lifting heavy objects, constipation or diarrhoea, pregnancy and your family history.  Although having haemorrhoids can be irritating, they are not considered to be dangerous and can be managed effectively with the right lifestyle changes and treatment.


Bowel cancer:

Bowel cancer also known as colorectal cancer affects the colon (large bowel) and back passage. Although bowel cancer shares similar symptoms to piles like bleeding from the back passage, there are some slight differences. Symptoms of bowel cancer can include:


  • Bleeding from the back passage and blood in stools. (Unlike symptoms caused by piles, the blood is not usually bright red).
  • Abdominal pain
  • A persistent change in bowel habits such as constipation and diarrhoea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained tiredness, dizziness or breathlessness.


Though bowel cancer affects both men and women, men have a slightly greater risk of rectal cancer. 95% of bowel cancer cases affect people over 50, but it is important to know that bowel cancer can occur at any age. Bowel cancer can affect anyone. 

There are a number of risk factors that can increase a person’s chance of developing the condition. These include: A diet high in red or processed meat, smoking, obesity, a low fibre diet, excessive alcohol and family history. Diagnosing bowel cancer early is key. In most cases, if the condition is diagnosed early on, survival rate is high. Unlike piles, if left untreated bowel cancer can lead to an early fatality. It is important that if you notice any symptoms associated with the condition you see a doctor immediately. The most effective way to find out if you have bowel cancer involves a rectal examination, a screening programme, a colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy. All these procedures require the aid of a medical professional.

The infographic below created by UK online clinic HealthExpress and charity Beating Bowel Cancer, may help improve your awareness of symptoms and differences, for both bowel cancer and piles and avoid any confusion between the two common health conditions.