Colposcopy (kol-poss-kapee)

A colposcopy is a procedure done to look at your cervix (the entrance to your uterus). A microscope called a colposcope is used.

Why is a colposcopy done?

A colposcopy may be done if you have had an abnormal result from a cervical screening (smear) test. Other reasons include having an abnormal lump or growth on your cervix or vagina. 

Image credit: Canva

A colposcopy can help diagnose conditions like:

  • cervical cancer
  • non-cancerous growths or polyps
  • inflammation of the cervix
  • genital warts. 

For more than half of women who have a colposcopy abnormal cells will be found in their cervix. This doesn't mean they have cervical cancer, but abnormal cells can sometimes develop into cancer if they're not treated.

It's safe to have a colposcopy during pregnancy but let the clinic know if you are pregnant.  

How is a colposcopy done?

The colposcopy will usually be done in a hospital clinic by a specially trained nurse or doctor (colposcopist). If you would prefer a female specialist to carry out your colposcopy, let the clinic know.  

The clinic will let you know what you need to do to prepare for the procedure.  

  • The procedure takes about 15 minutes 
  • It can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but is not usually painful. You can ask for the procedure to be stopped at any time. 
  • You will be asked to lie on your back, just like a cervical screening test. 
  • During the procedure, you will have a thin metal tube (speculum) put into your vagina to hold it open. This is similar to when you have cervical screening (a smear test). 
  • So the colposcopist can see your cervix, a colposcope is positioned outside the vagina with its light directed on the cervix. They may put a liquid onto your cervix so they can see the cervical cells better. This may feel like tingling or stinging.
  • Small samples of tissue (biopsies) may be removed for further testing. This may feel like a mild pinching or scratching feeling. 

What happens afterwards?

If you haven't had a biopsy, you will be able to carry on with your normal activities straight after the procedure.

If you have had a biopsy, you may get some cramping similar to period pain. You may also have some vaginal discharge of light bleeding for a few days. It's best to avoid vigorous exercise, sexual intercourse and the use of tampons for a couple of days and until the bleeding has stopped. You can shower, but don't have a bath or a swim and don't use spa pools. 

Are there any risks involved in a colposcopy?

A colposcopy is usually a safe procedure but as with any procedure there are risksContact your healthcare provider as soon as you can or call Healthline (0800 611 116) for advice if you experience any of the following symptoms after your treatment:  

  • Signs of infection, eg, vaginal discharge, pain in your lower tummy that doesn’t go away or fever. 
  • Bleeding that's heavier than your usual period, or lasts longer than a week.

When will I get the results?

If no abnormal cells were found, you will usually be told straight away by the specialist. You will still need to attend routine cervical screening appointments in the future.  

If you have had a biopsy, the tissue sample will be sent to a lab for analysis. It can take about a month for the colposcopy specialist to receive and review the results. Phone the clinic if you haven’t heard anything in a month. The clinic will discuss your results with you, and they will also share this with your usual doctor. Rarely, the colposcopy may need to be repeated if the results are not certain. Read more about the results of biopsy tests. 

Learn more

The following links provide further information about colposcopy. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.  

Having a colposcopy Time to Screen National Screening Unit, NZ
Colposcopy Cancer Research, UK
Colposcopy NHS Inform, UK

References

Having a colposcopy Time to Screen National Screening Unit, NZ
Colposcopy
NHS, UK, 2022
Colposcopy HealthDirect, Australia, 2021

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 25 Oct 2022