Colposcopy explained

Most women will have never heard of a colposcopy, which can lead to confusion and anxiety if you are advised to undergo one. To avoid any such worry, outlined here are the basics of this examination and why it’s such an important diagnostic tool.

What is a colposcopy?

A colposcopy is a procedure used to take a close-up look at the cervix, the lowermost part of the uterus. This is usually done because a cervical smear test has flagged up abnormal cells in or around the cervix, or it could be because your practitioner has noticed that your cervix doesn’t look as healthy as expected. It may also be undertaken if it has been impossible to gain a conclusive result from multiple smear tests or to investigate the cause of any pelvic pain or abnormal bleeding that you are experiencing. A colposcopy is a good gauge for determining whether you need any further tests or treatment.

What does the procedure involve?

A colposcopy is carried out using an instrument called a colposcope, which looks a bit like a pair of binoculars, and which emits a beam of light so that your practitioner can get a clear view of your cervix. Your practitioner will look through the colposcope, but it is important to note that it never enters your body. The first part of the procedure is much like a smear test, in that you undress from the waist down, lie down, and then your practitioner will insert a speculum into your vagina. Using the colposcope, they will then examine your cervix and swab the area with a vinegar-like solution to highlight any abnormal cells. You may experience a slight burning sensation from the solution. Following this, your practitioner may remove some abnormal cells, but often a biopsy is taken for further analysis before this treatment.

What will happen after the colposcopy?

Usually the colposcopy procedure will have enabled your practitioner to immediately determine whether the cells in your cervix are abnormal. If a biopsy was taken you will have to wait for your results to be posted to you; this commonly takes between four and eight weeks. Approximately four out of ten women will have no abnormal cells, and six out of ten will have abnormal cells, which may or may not need to be removed.

A colposcopy is not carried out under anaesthetic – thankfully the cervix doesn’t have many nerve endings – although you may wish to take some painkillers an hour or so before the examination. The procedure takes around twenty minutes and you will be able to go home immediately afterwards.