A colposcopy is a test to have a look at the cervix in detail. The doctor or specialist nurse takes samples of any abnormal areas.
What a colposcopy is
A colposcope is a large magnifying glass that a doctor or specialist nurse (colposcopist) uses to closely look at the skin-like covering of the cervix.
The colposcope doesn't go inside you. But by looking through it, the colposcopist can see changes that may be too small to see with the naked eye. They can take samples (biopsies) of any abnormal areas on the cervix.
For most women, this is a painless examination. You need to lie in the same position as for the cervical screening test (sometimes called a smear test). Some people find it uncomfortable to stay in this position for more than a few minutes. Let the colposcopist know if you are uncomfortable.
You usually have a colposcopy in the hospital outpatient clinic.
Why you might have colposcopy
You have a colposcopy if you've had an abnormal result after a cervical screening test, or if you have symptoms that could be caused by cervical cancer.
Having the test
To have the colposcopy, you need to undress from the waist down. Your nurse will give you a sheet to cover yourself.
You lie on your back on the couch with your feet drawn up and your knees apart. If you can't get into that position for any reason, the colposcopist may be able to do the examination with you lying on your side with your knees drawn up. Your nurse will help you to get in a comfortable position.
The colposcopist gently puts in a speculum to open up your vagina. Then they look through the colposcope at the surface of your cervix. They can take biopsies of any abnormal areas. They send these to the laboratory to be looked at. The examination takes up to 20 minutes.
The biopsy is usually painless. But some women have crampy pain for a few minutes.
If your doctor or specialist nurse finds an area of abnormal cells, you might have treatment there and then. They call this see and treat. Or they may wait until they have the biopsy results.
After your test
You can go home as soon as the colposcopy is over.
Getting your results
Before you leave hospital make sure you know how you will be given the results. You may be asked to go back to the hospital for an outpatient appointment to get the results. Or the results may be sent in the post.
If you have abnormal cells on your cervix, you'll have an appointment to go back to the colposcopy clinic to have them treated.
Colposcopy is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. Your doctors make sure the benefits of having a colposcopy outweigh any possible risks.
You might have some light bleeding for up to 5 days after having a biopsy. This is normal. But see your GP or contact the colposcopy unit for advice if the bleeding is heavier than your usual period, or you are still bleeding after a week.
There is a small risk of infection. You should avoid having sex and using tampons until any bleeding stops - about 5 days after a biopsy. This allows the area on the cervix to heal and reduces the risk of infection. Your GP will give you antibiotics if you develop an infection.
If you are pregnant
You can have a colposcopy if you're pregnant. It is perfectly safe for you and your baby, and will not affect the delivery. It won't affect your ability to get pregnant in future either.