What is a colposcopy?

A colposcopy is a type of women’s health exam. It’s often performed by your family doctor or a gynecologist. He or she uses a tool called a colposcope. It shines a light on the cervix and magnifies the view.

A colposcopy often is done if you have an abnormal Pap smear. The purpose of the exam is to get a close look the cervix. The doctor can see and diagnose problems not seen with the naked eye. For example, the doctor can detect cervical cancer at an early stage.

Path to improved health

Before the exam

A colposcopy is a short outpatient exam. It’s typically done in a doctor’s office. Prior to the exam, you should empty your bladder and bowels. Don’t douche, have sex, or use vaginal medicines or tampons 24 hours before your appointment. Let your doctor know if you’re pregnant or are allergic to latex, iodine, or medicines.

Your doctor may recommend that you take a dose of over-the-counter ibuprofen (one brand name: Advil) or other anti-inflammatory medication prior to the procedure.

During the exam

The complete exam takes about 20 to 30 minutes. The doctor has you lie face up on an exam table. You bend your legs and place your feet in stirrups, as you would for a pelvic exam or Pap smear. First, the doctor inserts a speculum into your vagina. This small tool opens your vagina so they can see inside your vagina and the outside of your cervix. Then, the doctor applies a solution of vinegar or iodine to your cervix with a cotton swab. The solution may cause a mild burning or stinging sensation. The solution makes potentially abnormal tissue turn white.

Next, the doctor looks at your cervix through the colposcope. He or she may take photographs with a tiny camera. If your doctor sees spots of abnormal tissue, he or she will perform a biopsy. This involves removing small samples of tissue from the abnormal area in or around your cervix. The samples are sent to a lab to examine.

You may experience some discomfort during the exam. You could have mild cramps caused by the speculum opening your vagina. You may feel a slight pinch and cramping if your doctor removes tissue to biopsy. Try to relax your muscles and take slow, deep breaths.

After the exam

Following the exam, you may have mild cramps. You can take an over-the-counter medicine to help relieve the pain. Ask your doctor what kind to take, as well as how much, and when to take it. You also could have some vaginal discharge for 1 or 2 days. During the biopsy, your doctor may put a thick paste on your cervix to stop any bleeding. When this paste mixes with blood, it can form a thick, dark discharge. Light spotting is normal as well. Your doctor will probably recommend wearing a sanitary pad.

You should not use a tampon, have sex, or put anything in your vagina for at least 1 week after the exam.

Things to consider

It takes about 1 to 2 weeks for the lab to process the biopsy. Your doctor’s office will contact you with the results and let you know if treatment is needed.

Normal results indicate no abnormal changes were found. Abnormal results can indicate several things.

  • Cervical polyps (growths on the cervix). These aren’t cancerous.
  • Cervical warts.
  • HPV (human papilloma virus). The biopsy can diagnose the specific strain of the infection.
  • Cervicitis (inflammation of the cervix).
  • Cervical dysplasia (precancerous changes in the cervical tissue).
  • Cervical cancer.

A colposcopy doesn’t have many risks. You can have mild pain, bleeding, or discharge. A colposcopy shouldn’t prevent you from getting pregnant in the future.

When to see a doctor

Call your doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms after your exam:

  • Heavy vaginal bleeding (using more than one sanitary pad per hour).
  • A bad-smelling vaginal odor.
  • Severe lower stomach pain.
  • Fever or chills.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Is it possible to do a colposcopy if I am pregnant?
  • What are the benefits and risks of a colposcopy?
  • How soon after a colposcopy can I return to my normal activities?
  • What types of treatment may be needed if my biopsy results come back abnormal?