A colposcopy is a procedure during which the surface of the cervix is closely examined using a magnifying instrument called a colposcope.
A specialist, called a colposcopist, performs the procedure to check the cells on the surface of the cervix for abnormalities.
Why do I need a colposcopy?
A colposcopy is usually carried out when the results of a cervical screening test (smear test) indicate there are abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.
A colposcopy may also be used to investigate things such as unexplained vaginal bleeding (such as after sex), an inflamed cervix, and unexplained pelvic pain.
Read more about why colposcopy is used.
During a colposcopy, you lie down in a special type of chair which has padded supports to rest your legs on. A device called a speculum is gently inserted into your vagina and opened to allow your colposcopist to see your cervix (the same as when you have a cervical smear test).
Your cervix is then examined with a colposcope. A colposcope is an instrument with a light and magnifying lens that stays outside your body and allows your colposcopist to see any abnormalities.
A small sample of tissue may also be removed for further testing during a process known as a biopsy.
The examination lasts about 20 minutes, but the whole appointment can take about an hour.
It is usually a painless procedure, although some women do find it uncomfortable. If you are concerned, you could take a painkiller, such as paracetamol, beforehand. However, do not take aspirin or ibuprofen as they may increase your chance of bleeding afterwards.
Read more about what happens during a colposcopy.
Results and treatment
The colposcopist can usually determine straight away if there are any cell abnormalities and whether treatment is required, although it may take a few weeks to get the results of a biopsy.
The extent of the abnormal cells will be graded on a scale of one to three, with three indicating the highest level of abnormality.
Read more about colposcopy results.
Mild abnormalities do not always need to be treated, as they can improve without it.
If treatment is required, the aim is to remove abnormal cells, while preserving as much normal tissue as possible.
The most common treatment is large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ). This is a quick procedure that involves using a heated loop of wire to remove the abnormal cells. This procedure usually only lasts a few minutes and can be done during a colposcopy.
The removal of abnormal cervical cells is almost always 100% successful and it is unlikely that any cell changes will occur in the future.
Read more about colposcopy treatments.