What happens during a colposcopy
A colposcopy takes about 15 to 20 minutes and you can go home the same day. The examination is done the same way as a screening test.
A dye is used on your cervix. This is to more clearly identify any abnormal areas or cell changes. This helps determine whether you need treatment.
In some cases a small sample of tissue (a biopsy) may be removed for closer examination. This may be a bit uncomfortable.
If it's obvious that you have abnormal cells in your cervix, you may have treatment to remove these immediately, if it suits you to do so. If it isn't clear if you have abnormal cells, you'll need to wait until you get your biopsy results.
Preparing for a colposcopy
For at least 24 hours before your appointment you should avoid:
- using vaginal medications, lubricants or creams
- washing directly inside your vagina (douching)
You can eat and drink as normal. You should try to eat something before your appointment. You may have some light bleeding or discharge afterwards. You might find it useful to bring a panty liner with you.
Contact the clinic before your appointment if:
- you're pregnant
- you want the procedure done by a female doctor or nurse
If you're pregnant, it's still important to attend your colposcopy appointment. A colposcopy is safe during pregnancy. But any treatment will usually be delayed until a few months after giving birth.
You can bring a friend, partner or family member with you to the hospital if you think it will help you feel more at ease. A nurse will be there to provide support and answer any questions you may have.
If you have young children, try to arrange for someone to look after them rather than bringing them to the clinic.
The colposcopy examination
A colposcopy is carried out by a specialist called a colposcopist. This may be a doctor or a nurse. Before the colposcopy examination, the doctor or nurse will:
- ask you about your medical history
- explain what a colposcopy is
- explain treatments for abnormal cell changes
- explain any risks linked to the treatment
- ask for your consent
During the procedure:
- You undress from the waist down (you may not need to remove a loose skirt). You then lie down on a special purpose-built couch.
- A device called a speculum is inserted into your vagina and gently opened - this is like having a cervical screening test.
- A microscope with a light (a colposcope) is used to look at your cervix. This stays about 30cm (12 inches) outside your vagina. It allows the colposcopist to see the cells on your cervix.
- The doctor will use special liquids on your cervix to highlight any abnormal areas.
- A small sample of tissue (a biopsy) may be removed for closer examination in a lab. This shouldn't be painful, but you may feel a slight pinch or stinging sensation.
If abnormal cells are obvious, you may be offered treatment to remove the cells immediately. Otherwise, you'll need to wait until you get your biopsy result.
After a colposcopy
After having a colposcopy you:
- will be able to go home as soon as you feel ready, usually straight afterwards
- can return to your normal activities, including work and driving, immediately
- may have a brownish vaginal discharge, or light bleeding if you had a biopsy - this is normal and should stop after 3 to 5 days
- should wait until any bleeding stops before having sex or using tampons, vaginal medications, lubricants or creams
Your nurse or doctor may be able to tell you what they've found straight away. If you have had a biopsy, it will be checked in a lab. You'll need to wait up to 6 weeks to receive your result by post.
If a treatment was carried out, you will be advised to take things easy for the rest of the day. Your doctor or nurse will tell you how to take care of yourself after treatment. Read more about treatment and post-treatment care here.
You may need to return for follow-up visits. If you do, your doctor or nurse will let you know.
Risks and side effects of a colposcopy
A colposcopy is a very safe procedure that shouldn't cause any serious problems.
But some women experience:
- discomfort or pain - tell the colposcopist if you find the procedure painful, they can try to make you more comfortable
- brown vaginal discharge - liquids used to highlight abnormal cells in the cervix cause this, it should pass quickly
- light bleeding - this can occur if you have a biopsy and should pass within 3 to 5 days
Contact the colposcopy clinic if you have:
- constant bleeding
- bleeding that's heavier than your usual period
- smelly vaginal discharge
- tummy pain
If you also have treatment to remove any abnormal cells, there are additional risks and side effects to be aware of.