What is a Colposcopy?

Mary McMahon

A colposcopy is a medical procedure used to follow up an abnormal Pap smear results, or on observations of irregularities during a routine gynecological appointment. During the colposcopy, the goal is to identify areas of abnormality in the vagina and around the cervix, and to take tissue samples for biopsy, if necessary. The procedure may also be used to identify the cause of unusual observations made during a pelvic exam, or to confirm that a treatment or prior procedure is working effectively.

Test results from the biopsy, if one is taken, can take some time to be returned.
Test results from the biopsy, if one is taken, can take some time to be returned.

When a woman goes in for a colposcopy appointment, the procedure is much like that for a regular gynecological appointment. Most of the time, her regular practitioner can perform the procedure. The appointment starts with undressing from the waist down on a gynecological table, and then the practitioner inserts a speculum to dilate the vagina, making it easier to visualize the internal reproductive structures. Then, the area is swabbed with a mild vinegar solution, which will cause abnormal areas to blanch white.

Tampon use should be avoided after a colposcopy.
Tampon use should be avoided after a colposcopy.

Instead of performing the examination with the naked eye, the practitioner uses a colposcope, a microscope which can magnify areas of interest up to 400 times, if necessary. A bright light illuminates the area while the practitioner manipulates the colposcope to look for areas of abnormal tissue or blood vessel development. If an abnormality is spotted, a biopsy may be taken for analysis.

Tissue samples may be taken from the vagina during a colposcopy.
Tissue samples may be taken from the vagina during a colposcopy.

Colposcopies can also be used to identify infections, physical abnormalities, and some other conditions. Sometimes, a doctor will recommend a colposcopy just to be sure that there are no emergent conditions of concern in women who are at risk, like women with repeat abnormal pap smears or HPV.

A woman with an abnormal Pap smear may need to get a colposcopy biopsy.
A woman with an abnormal Pap smear may need to get a colposcopy biopsy.

The procedure is about as comfortable as a regular pelvic exam. Some women like to take a muscle relaxant or anti-anxiety medication before a colposcopy, because they may be asked to sit in the position for some time. If a biopsy is taken, a painful pinching sensation can be experienced, and some bleeding may occur.

As a general rule, there are no complications involved in a colposcopy. Some women experience light bleeding or spotting, and doctors often recommend that women refrain from sexual activity, tampon use, or administering medications vaginally for a week after the procedure. Test results from the biopsy, if one is taken, can take some time to be returned, but women should rest assured that their medical providers will call as soon as results are in.

The discomfort experienced during a colposcopy is similar to that from a routine pap smear.
The discomfort experienced during a colposcopy is similar to that from a routine pap smear.

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Discussion Comments

honeybees

I went to my gynecologist every year and always had a normal exam. I was really surprised one year when I had an abnormal pap smear result.

With my doctors office, if the result is normal, they send you something in the mail. If there is something they are concerned with, they will give you a call.

I was surprised when I got this call and told that the results came back abnormal. I had to go back in for another exam, and this time he performed a colposcopy biopsy so he could get a better look and take some more samples.

For a couple years I went every 6 months to be checked, but since nothing as changed since then, I am now back on a yearly schedule.

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