Colposcopy and CIN

A colposcopy is usually done at a hospital outpatient clinic. This test uses a microscope called a colposcope to look closely at your cervix. It usually takes 15-20 minutes.

The doctor or nurse may take a small sample of cells from the cervix (a biopsy). This might feel slightly uncomfortable and cause a little bleeding. You may be advised not to have penetrative sex, use tampons or go swimming for a few days. This lets the cervix heal.

Cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia (CIN) is the name given to the most common type of abnormal cells found during colposcopy. It is graded by how deep the cell changes go into the surface of the cervix:

  • CIN 1 – one-third of the thickness of the surface layer is affected. CIN 1 will often return to normal with no treatment.
  • CIN 2 – two-thirds of the thickness of the surface layer is affected.
  • CIN 3 – the full thickness of the surface layer is affected.

CIN 2 and 3 have a higher risk of developing into cervical cancer. You will usually be offered treatment to prevent this.

Having a colposcopy

This test uses a microscope called a colposcope to look closely at your cervix. You usually have it done at a hospital outpatient clinic.

A specialist doctor or nurse will do the colposcopy. To get ready for the test you undress from the waist down. You then lie on your back on an examination couch. Some clinics have ones with foot or leg supports you can rest your legs up on. You will be asked to lie with your knees bent and apart. The doctor or nurse puts an instrument called a speculum into your vagina. This holds the vagina open so that they can see your cervix. They put 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.

The doctor or nurse may take a small sample of cells from the cervix (a biopsy). These will be sent to a laboratory to be looked at.

Having a colposcopy
Having a colposcopy

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How a colposcopy is done
How a colposcopy is done

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A colposcopy takes 15 to 20 minutes. It is not usually painful, but if a biopsy is taken you may feel some discomfort. The biopsy can cause slight bleeding and you may have some vaginal bleeding for up to two 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.


Your colposcopy results

A colposcopy shows the abnormal areas of the cervix and how abnormal these cells are.

Sometimes the doctor or nurse can see during the test that the cells are very abnormal. They may offer you treatment to remove these cells straight away. Before any treatment, you should be given time and information to make a decision. If you have questions, want more time or are not sure, the treatment can always be done on another day.

Your doctor or nurse will only offer treatment if they are sure the cells are very abnormal and there is a risk of cancer developing. Sometimes they can see the abnormal cells but it is not clear how serious the changes are. A small sample (biopsy) of the cells will be collected and looked at under a more powerful microscope to check if you need treatment. Biopsy results may take two or three weeks. Ask your doctor or nurse when you will get the results.


What is CIN?

Cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia (CIN) is a term that describes the most common type of abnormal cells found during colposcopy.

CIN is graded by how deep the cell changes go into the surface of the cervix:

  • CIN 1 – one-third of the thickness of the surface layer is affected.
  • CIN 2 – two-thirds of the thickness of the surface layer is affected.
  • CIN 3 – the full thickness of the surface layer is affected.

CIN 3 is also known as carcinoma-in-situ. Although this sounds like cancer, CIN 3 is not cervical cancer. Cancer develops when the deeper layers of the cervix are affected by abnormal cells.

CIN 1

Cells showing CIN 1 will often return to normal without any treatment at all. You will have further screening tests or colposcopies to check the cells have improved. If these tests show the CIN 1 is not improving, you may be offered treatment.

CIN 2 and 3

CIN 2 and 3 have a higher risk of developing into cervical cancer. You will usually be offered treatment to prevent this happening.

Back to Cervical screening and CIN

About cervical screening

Cervical screening checks for abnormal cell changes in the cervix. Finding and treating these changes can prevent cancer developing.