What is a colposcopy?
Colposcopy is a 20-minute outpatient examination that uses a colposcope, meaning a special microscope, to examine your cervix, vagina and vulva under magnification for signs of disease.
A colposcopy looks at your cervix for any cells that are cancerous or abnormal and may become cancerous. It aims to find these cells early on and prevent them from developing into anything more serious.
During a colposcopy, a speculum is inserted into your vagina and gently opened, the same as during your cervical screening. A microscope with a light is then positioned a few inches from your vulva and is used to look at your cervix. Liquids may be applied to your cervix to highlight any abnormal areas. A small amount of tissue might be removed, known as a biopsy, and sent to a laboratory for testing.
Why do you need a colposcopy?
A colposcopy of your cervix is recommended if:
- your cervical screening showed an HPV positive result and abnormal cells in your cervix. Some high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause abnormal changes to the cells of your cervix, and these abnormal cells may turn into cervical cancer if not treated.
- your cervix does not look as healthy as it should.
- clear results have not been achieved after several cervical screening tests.
- you have an abnormal lump or growth on your cervix or vagina.
- you have unusual vaginal bleeding.
A colposcopy procedure can help diagnose cervical cancer or precancer, benign growths such as polyps, inflammation of the cervix, and genital warts.
How long does it take to get the result of a colposcopy?
Often you get the results of a colposcopy straight away as your doctor is able to tell you what they have found.
If you have a colposcopy biopsy taken, you will need to wait a week or two to receive your biopsy results. Your doctor will let you know when to expect your biopsy results and how they will let you know them.
If abnormal cells in your cervix are found from a colposcopy, treatment can be advised to remove them. Treatment may be performed during your colposcopy or afterwards.
If it is clear that you have some abnormal cells in your cervix then treatment may be performed at the same time as a colposcopy. Treatment may be performed after your colposcopy if your doctor takes a biopsy sample during your colposcopy and you need to wait for the results of the biopsy before having treatment, your doctor advises a different type of treatment or the area of abnormal cells is large and you require a general anaesthetic.
Treatments to remove abnormal cells:
- LLETZ (large loop excision of the transformation zone) - the most common treatment for abnormal cervical cells. Also called loop electrosurgical excision (LEEP) or loop diathermy. Local anaesthetic is injected into your cervix during your colposcopy and the abnormal area of tissue is removed using a thin loop-shaped tool that is heated with an electric current.
- Cone biopsy – under general anaesthetic your doctor removes a cone-shaped wedge of tissue from the cervix.
Abnormal cells can also be treated using laser treatment, cryotherapy (freezes), or cold coagulation (uses heat) to destroy them and allow normal cells to grow back in their place.
How painful is a colposcopy?
Most women do not feel colposcopy pain. Some women feel slight discomfort related to the speculum that keeps the vaginal walls open or the biopsy if required and this is short-lived.
If you have colposcopy treatment, you will have a local anaesthetic and will not feel pain during the procedure. After colposcopy treatment for any abnormal cells, you might feel a mild period-like pain that can be relieved using over-the-counter pain relief.
Colposcopy side effects
If you had a biopsy during your colposcopy you may have period pain cramps, spotting or light bleeding and a brownish discharge.
If you continue bleeding after a colposcopy for longer than a week or the bleeding gets heavier, you should let your colposcopist or hospital know.
You may experience a heavier or more prolonged than usual first period and period irregularity for a couple of months after your colposcopy procedure.
What is the recovery process after a colposcopy procedure?
A diagnostic colposcopy is a safe and straightforward walk in walk out procedure. You will be able to go home, return to work, and continue with your normal daily routine without any colposcopy pain, as soon as the procedure is completed.
If you had a biopsy, you might experience slight colposcopy pain in your vagina or vulvar, light bleeding or a dark vaginal discharge for a few days. We recommend you use a pad to catch any blood or discharge.
You should avoid swimming, sexual intercourse, and tampons until any discharge has cleared up to reduce your risk of infection.
If you had treatment during your colposcopy you might experience slight period-like pain. It soon passes and can be relieved using your normal pain relief. You can return to work the next day.
Following the colposcopy procedure, you may experience a heavier or more prolonged first period than usual and period irregularity for a couple of months.