Frequently Asked Questions: Special Procedures
What is colposcopy?
Colposcopy is a way of looking at the cervix through a special magnifying device called a colposcope. It shines a light into the vagina and onto the cervix. A colposcope can greatly enlarge the normal view. This exam allows the health care provider to find problems that cannot be seen by the eye alone.
Colposcopy is done when results of cervical cancer screening tests show abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. Colposcopy provides more information about the abnormal cells. Colposcopy also may be used to further assess other problems:
- Genital warts on the cervix
- Cervicitis (an inflamed cervix)
- Benign (not cancer) growths, such as polyps
Sometimes colposcopy may need to be done more than once. It also can be used to check the result of a treatment.
Colposcopy is done in a doctor’s office. You may be referred to another health care provider or to a special clinic to have it done.
The procedure is best done when a woman is not having her menstrual period. This gives the health care provider a better view of the cervix. For at least 24 hours before the test, you should not
- use tampons
- use vaginal medications
- have sex
As with a pelvic exam, you will lie on your back with your feet raised and placed on foot rests for support. A speculum will be used to hold apart the vaginal walls so that the inside of the vagina and the cervix can be seen. The colposcope is placed just outside the opening of your vagina.
A mild solution will be applied to your cervix and vagina with a cotton swab or cotton ball. This liquid makes abnormal areas on the cervix easier to see. You may feel a slight burning.
During colposcopy, the health care provider may see abnormal areas. A biopsy of these areas may be done. During a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is removed from the cervix. The sample is removed with a special device.
Cells also may be taken from the canal of the cervix. A special device is used to collect the cells. This is called endocervical curettage (ECC).
If you have a colposcopy without a biopsy, you should feel fine right away. You can do the things you normally do. You may have a little spotting for a couple of days.
If you have a colposcopy with a biopsy, you may have pain and discomfort for 1 or 2 days. Over-the-counter pain medications can be helpful. You may have some vaginal bleeding. You also may have a dark discharge for a few days. This may occur from medication used to help stop bleeding at the biopsy site. You may need to wear a sanitary pad until the discharge stops.
Your health care provider may suggest you limit your activity for a brief time. While the cervix heals, you will be told not to put anything into your vagina for a short time:
- Do not have sex.
- Do not use tampons.
- Do not douche.
Call your health care provider right away if you have any of these problems:
- Heavy vaginal bleeding (using more than one sanitary pad per hour)
- Severe lower abdominal pain
Biopsy: A minor surgical procedure to remove a small piece of tissue that is then examined under a microscope in a laboratory.
Cervix: The lower, narrow end of the uterus at the top of the vagina.
Polyps: Benign (noncancerous) growths that develop from tissue lining an organ, such as that lining the inside of the uterus.
Speculum: An instrument used to hold open the walls of the vagina.
Vagina: A tube-like structure surrounded by muscles leading from the uterus to the outside of the body.
If you have further questions, contact your obstetrician–gynecologist.
FAQ135. Copyright April 2015 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
This information is designed as an educational aid to patients and sets forth current information and opinions related to women’s health. It is not intended as a statement of the standard of care, nor does it comprise all proper treatments or methods of care. It is not a substitute for a treating clinician’s independent professional judgment. Read ACOG’s complete disclaimer.