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What is a colposcopy?

A colposcopy is a procedure that uses an instrument with a magnifying lens and a light, called a colposcope, to examine the cervix (opening to the uterus) and vagina for abnormalities. The colposcope magnifies the image many times, allowing your physician to see the tissues on the cervix and vaginal walls more clearly. In some cases, a cervical biopsy (a small sample of tissue) may be taken for further examination in the lab.

While receiving abnormal results from your Pap test can cause uncertainty, our expert team is dedicated to taking a proactive approach to identify its causes.

Why it's done

When cervical or vaginal problems are found during a pelvic examination, or abnormal cells are found during a Pap test, a colposcopy may be performed. Through the colposcope, your physician can see certain changes in cervical and vaginal tissues, such as abnormal blood vessels, tissue structure, color and patterns. Cells that appear to be abnormal, but are not cancerous at the present time may be identified as precancerous. The appearance of these abnormal cells may be the first evidence of cancer that develops years later.

If abnormalities are seen during a colposcopy, a small sample of tissue (called a colposcopic biopsy) may be taken for further study. Tissue samples from inside the cervix using an endocervical brush or endocervical curettage (ECC) may also be taken.

A colposcopy procedure may also be used to diagnose and assist in the treatment of the following conditions:

  • Bleeding
  • Polyps (benign growths)
  • Genital warts, which may indicate infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), a risk factor for developing cervical cancer
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure in women whose mothers took DES during pregnancy, as DES exposure increases the risk for cancer of the reproductive system.

Risks

Colposcopies are a standard procedure and are associated with very few risks and side affects, though it is possible to experience:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Pain in the pelvic area

Serious side effects that warrant a call to your physician include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Severe pain in the abdomen
  • Heavy, abnormal bleeding during your period

Make sure your doctor is aware of any allergies you have. In rare cases, some women experience a reaction to the solution used to numb the cervix during the procedure.

How to prepare

Before the procedure, you should make your physician aware of any medical conditions, allergies and/or medications you have.

It's recommended, though not required, that you avoid using tampons, vaginal medication and also do not have sex the day before the procedure. In addition, you should try to schedule your colposcopy when you are not on your period.

What to expect after treatment

After the colposcopy is performed, which takes between 10 and 20 minutes, you will be discharged and can resume normal activity in most cases.

You may notice some vaginal spotting or discharge if you had a biopsy during the procedure. Minor cramping is also common.

It can take up to a week to get the results of your colposcopy. A follow-up visit with your physician is important to discuss the results, what they mean and what your options are if further action is needed.

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