So You Need a Colposcopy - Here's What to Expect

Having a routine Pap test is one of the most important things you can do to make sure you stay healthy. By collecting a very small sample of cells from your cervix (the opening of your uterus), Pap tests are designed to detect cervical cancer and other issues in their earliest stages. Most women need to have a Pap test once every couple of years. And in most cases, the results of a Pap test will be completely normal, which means there’s no evidence of abnormal cells that could be an early sign of cancer. 

Sometimes, though, a Pap test will yield abnormal results. Now, the first thing you should know is that an abnormal Pap test result doesn’t always mean cancer; in fact, far more often, it’s caused by an infection, including infection with HPV, the most common type of STD. In those cases, the infection typically clears up on its own or with a little medical treatment. Of course, when your Pap test is abnormal, you’ll want to have additional tests and evaluations to find out what’s causing those results. And that’s where colposcopy comes in.

Colposcopy basics: What it is and how it's done

Colposcopy is a simple evaluation that’s performed right in the office in a similar manner as a pelvic exam. The evaluation uses a lighted magnifier called a colposcope to closely examine the cells around your cervix. Without lighted magnification, it can be really difficult to get a close look at the cells that caused the test results to be abnormal. The colposcope’s magnification feature makes it a lot easier to zero-in on those areas so additional samples can be taken and evaluated.

The exam itself only takes about 15 minutes or so, and it needs to be scheduled for a day when you’re not having your period. You should also avoid douching, intercourse, and using any type of vaginal medication for 24 hours before your colposcopy exam. 

During the exam, you’ll lie back on the exam table, just like you do during a pelvic exam. The doctor inserts a lubricated speculum into your vagina, gently widening the vaginal canal so the cervix is easier to see. Next, a special solution is applied to your cervix and the walls of your vaginal canal. The solution helps highlight abnormal cells so they’re easier to see. Finally, the doctor places the colposcope at the opening of your vagina. The scope itself is not inserted. The colposcope’s light is directed at your cervix, and the doctor looks through the magnifying lens to evaluate the tissue in the area.

If the doctor notices tissue that looks unusual or abnormal, a small sample of tissue (called a biopsy) will be taken and sent to a lab for further evaluation. Some biopsies scrape a small amount of tissue away, while others use a small cutting instrument to remove a very tiny amount of tissue. Depending on the area of the biopsy (if tissue is removed from your cervix or from the area around your vagina or vulva), you might receive some local anesthetic to numb the area first. At the end of the colposcopy, the speculum is removed and you’ll be able to go back to your regular routines — there’s no downtime.

What to expect after your colposcopy

No one really looks forward to a pelvic exam, but fortunately, colposcopy is quick. Afterward, you might have a little cramping or mild spotting if biopsies were taken, but these side effects will clear up soon afterward. Until spotting stops (usually in about a week or so for most women), you can wear a pad, but no tampons. You should also avoid intercourse and douching until the tissue heals and the bleeding stops, just to prevent irritating the area more or possibly causing an infection.

If tissue samples were taken, the office will call you with the lab results as soon as they’re in. That typically takes a week or more. Depending on those lab results, the doctor will provide you with additional information and treatment recommendations.

Don't put off a colposcopy

Colposcopy exams are a critical part of making sure abnormal Pap test results aren't an indication of cervical cancer. To learn more about colposcopy exams at Women’s Care OB/GYN or to schedule a colposcopy or a Pap test, book an appointment online today.

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