Why a colposcopy is used 

A colposcopy is sometimes carried out after a routine cervical screening test.

Other reasons for having a colposcopy may include:

  • some of the cells in your cervical screening sample are abnormal (but not necessarily cancerous)
  • you are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the main cause of the abnormal cell changes and might lead to cancer 
  • you've had several screening tests, but it wasn't possible to give you a result
  • the nurse or doctor who carried out your screening test thought your cervix didn't look as healthy as it should

Cervical screening

Cervical screening is a routine test to check the health of a woman’s cervix. It identifies abnormal cells on the cervix, which in some cases may develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.

Regular cervical screening helps to ensure that any cell changes are picked up early. If necessary, any abnormal cells can be removed to prevent cervical cancer developing.

About 1 in 20 tests reveal mild cervical cell changes, most of which don't need treatment because they return to normal by themselves.

Approximately 1 in 100 cervical screening tests indicate moderate cell changes, and 1 in 200 indicate severe cell changes. If you have moderate or severe cell changes, you'll be referred for a colposcopy and you may need treatment.

However, less than 1 in 1,000 women referred for a colposcopy are found to have invasive cervical cancer that requires immediate treatment.

Read more about cervical screening tests.

Further investigation using a colposcopy

Although abnormal cervical screening results rarely indicate cancer, it's important to investigate all moderate and severe abnormal cell changes, so that any problems can be treated as soon as possible.

You may also be referred for a colposcopy as a precaution if the laboratory was unable to get a result from your screening test sample.

A colposcopy allows the cervix and the tissue on its surface to be examined more closely. This gives a clearer idea of exactly where the abnormal cell changes are located and how advanced they are.

A colposcopy isn't a treatment for abnormal cells, it's simply a way of examining cell changes in more detail. However, treatment can be carried out during a colposcopy if abnormal cells are detected.

Other reasons for a colposcopy

A colposcopy may also sometimes be used to investigate:

  • unexplained vaginal bleeding  for example, after sex 
  • an abnormal appearance of the cervix after an examination
  • an inflamed cervix (cervicitis)
  • benign (non-cancerous) growths such as polyps and cysts 
  • genital warts found on the cervix

Page last reviewed: 15/12/2014

Next review due: 15/12/2016