A colposcopy is a test that looks closely at the cervix, the lower part of the womb and the top of the vagina.
You may have this test:
- if a cervical smear test finds abnormal cells in your cervix or an infection called HPV
- if the person who did your cervical smear test thought your cervix looked less healthy than it should
- if several cervical smear tests give an unclear result
- if you have bleeding after sex
- to diagnose abnormal vaginal cell changes called vaginal intra-epithelial neoplasia (VAIN)
- to help diagnose cervical cancer or vaginal cancer.
This test uses a microscope called a colposcope to look closely at the cervix. You usually have the test at a hospital outpatient clinic. It shows any abnormal areas of the cervix and how abnormal these are.
A specialist doctor or nurse will do the colposcopy. The test takes 15 to 20 minutes.
When you are ready, you undress from the waist down. You then lie on your back on an examination couch. Some clinics have couches with foot or leg supports that you can rest your legs up on. You will be asked to lie with your knees bent and apart.
The doctor or nurse gently puts an instrument called a speculum into the vagina. This holds the vagina open so that they can see the cervix. It should not hurt but sometimes it can feel uncomfortable.
The doctor or nurse puts a liquid on the cervix to show any abnormal areas. They then shine a light onto the cervix and look at it through the colposcope. The colposcope is on a stand outside your body, between your legs or feet.
During the colposcopy, you may be able to see the cervix on a monitor in the room. You can ask to have the monitor turned away from you if you prefer.
Sometimes the colposcopy shows abnormal cells, but it is not clear how serious the changes are. The doctor or nurse will collect a small sample (biopsy) of the cells. After the colposcopy, they send the sample to a laboratory to be checked under a more powerful microscope. This will show if you need treatment.
The biopsy can cause slight bleeding and you may have some vaginal bleeding for up to 2 weeks. You may be advised not to have penetrative sex, use tampons or go swimming for a few days after a biopsy. This is to reduce the risk of infection and to give your cervix time to heal.
A colposcopy is not usually painful, but if a biopsy is taken you may feel some discomfort. Biopsy results may take 2 or 3 weeks. Ask your doctor or nurse when you will get the results.
If you are worried about having a colposcopy it might help to talk to someone. You can call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (7 days a week, 8am-8pm).
Below is a sample of the sources used in our cervical cancer, cervical screening and CIN information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
GOV.UK. Cervical screening: programme overview. Updated 18 November 2019. Available from www.gov.uk/guidance/cervical-screening-programme-overview (accessed March 2020).
GOV.UK. Colposcopic diagnosis, treatment and follow up. Updated 5 February 2020. Available from www.gov.uk/government/publications/cervical-screening-programme-and-colposcopy-management/3-colposcopic-diagnosis-treatment-and-follow-up (accessed April 2020).
Marth C, Landoni F, Mahner S, et al. Cervical cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines. Annals of Oncology, 2017; 28, suppl 4, iv72–iv83. Available from www.esmo.org/guidelines/gynaecological-cancers/cervical-cancer (accessed October 2020).
Reed N, Balega J, Barwick T, et al. British Gynaecological Cancer Society (BGCS) cervical cancer guidelines: recommendations for practice. 2020. Available from www.bgcs.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/FINAL-Cx-Ca-Version-for-submission.pdf (accessed October 2020).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
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