What Is a Colposcopy?

A colposcopy is a medical procedure for visually examining a woman’s cervix, vagina, and vulva for evidence of disease, especially cancer. Colposcopies are particularly important in the diagnosis of cervical cancer or precancer, and are often deployed as a follow-up procedure to an  abnormal Pap smear or positive human papillomavirus (HPV) test. A colposcope is a specialized medical camera that utilizes lighting and magnification to enable close visual inspection of the vaginal and cervical canals. Colposcopies do not require hospitalization; they can be performed in a gynecologists office or women’s health clinic and rarely involve more than a few minutes’ time.

Colposcopies are an effective means of diagnosing cancerous or precancerous conditions, returning evidence of abnormal cells in the cervix and other parts of the female reproductive system. To learn more about colposcopies and their associated health benefits, contact one of our gynecologists at Baptist Health.

When Is This Procedure Performed?

Colposcopies are primarily a diagnostic procedure for cancer performed in light of one or more of the following medical conditions:

  • Abnormal Pap smear results
  • A positive test for HPV in the reproductive system
  • Unexplained cervical or vaginal bleeding
  • Evidence of abnormality during a pelvic exam.

Colposcopies are also used to diagnose:

  • Cervical inflammation (cervicitis)
  • Genital warts
  • Non-cancerous polyps
  • Unexplained vaginal pain.

How Do I Prepare for a Colposcopy?

In the 48 hours prior to your test:

  • Abstain from vaginal intercourse
  • Avoid vaginal inserts, including tampons and suppositories
  • Don’t apply powders, sprays, or lubricants on or near the genitals
  • Refrain from douching with water, vinegar, or any other fluids.

If you’re experiencing some anxiety about the procedure, try to relax beforehand. Though colposcopies are rarely painful, you might feel better taking an over-the-counter pain medication prior to your appointment, if recommended by your gynecologist (though not aspirin, which thins the blood and could lead to internal bleeding, if a biopsy sample is collected).

What Should I Expect During This Procedure?

Colposcopies are typically performed at a gynecologist’s office or healthcare clinic. They involve the following steps:

  • You lie on your back on an examination table with your legs spread and your feet in stirrups.
  • Your physician inserts a medical device called a speculum into your vagina, which opens the vaginal canal and creates a line-of-sight to the cervix.
  • Next, he or she washes your cervix with a fluid that improves visual representation
  • Your physician then positions the colposcope near the vulva. This device has a light-source to illuminate the reproductive canal and a camera to produce magnified images of the interior linings, which are viewed on a monitor.
  • These images are recorded and can be studied by your gynecologist or an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB/GYN) for evidence of cellular abnormalities or other signs of disease.

If your physician sees evidence of cellular abnormality during the procedure, he or she may opt to collect a tissue sample for biopsy, which is a laboratory analysis for cancer. The sample may derive from inside the cervix or just below it. The entire procedure, including sample collection, should take from 10 to 20 minutes.

What Should I Expect After This Procedure?

You can resume normal activities immediately after a colposcopy. It’s possible that your gynecologist will recommend refraining from vaginal intercourse, or the use of tampons or douches, for a brief period of time. If you had a biopsy, you might feel some pain or discomfort for a day or two afterwards. You may also experience some spotting. If the pain persists, or bleeding is heavy, contact your physician.

What Results Should I Expect from a Colposcopy?

Your physician will provide you with an evaluation of findings from the procedure. Biopsy results can take up to four weeks to deliver.

If there is evidence for cancer or precancer, and the biopsy left abnormal cells untouched, your physician may recommend one of the following procedures as a next step:

  • Cone biopsy: A larger tissue sample is taken, targeting all remaining abnormal cells.
  • Cryotherapy: Abnormal cells are frozen and killed using liquid nitrogen or argon.
  • Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP): A similar procedure is performed with an electrically charged wire loop.

Learn More About Colposcopies at Baptist Health

For more information about colposcopies, or to schedule an appointment, contact a Baptist Health gynecologist.