A colposcopy is a procedure performed by your doctor, who uses an advanced pair of medical binoculars (referred to as a colposcope) to closely examine your cervix, vagina, and vulva for signs of disease.
If your Pap test or pelvic exam has come up as abnormal, your doctor may recommend a colposcopy. Pap tests are one of medicine’s great public health success stories. Because of the advent of Pap tests, rates of cervical cancer in the United States has fallen by over 50% in the last three decades.
The following factors are recurring themes and characteristics shared among most cervical cancer patients:
- Cigarettes: Cigarette smokers are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer because tobacco consumption lowers your body’s immune system.
- HPV: Women affected by HPV are more likely to develop cervical and vaginal issues and diseases, including cancer of the cervix, vagina, and vulva.
- Lack of Screening: Studies show that most cervical cancer deaths happen in women who are screened too infrequently or not at all. It is important for you to get tested regularly.
Diagnosing with a Colposcopy
Colposcopy is used to diagnose a variety of diseases and abnormalities, such as:
- Cervical Inflammation (Cervicitis)
- Cervical Cancer
- Genital Warts
- Precancerous Tissues in the Cervix
- Precancerous Tissues in the Vagina
- Vaginal Cancer
- Vulvar Cancer
Preparing for a Colposcopy
There are five main rules to follow when preparing for your colposcopy:
- Make sure you are not menstruating
- No intercourse within 48 hours before of your colposcopy
- No tampon use within 48 hours before your colposcopy.
- No vaginal medication usage within 48 hours before your colposcopy
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, either ibuprofen or acetaminophen, before going in for your colposcopy.
This twenty-minute procedure is usually done in your doctor’s office. As you lie on your back with your feet in stirrups, the doctor will place a speculum into your vagina. This speculum holds your vaginal walls open so your doctor can see your cervix. Then he or she positions the colposcopy a few inches away from your vulva. The bright light attached to these vaginal binoculars shines a light into your vagina and allows the doctor to examine your sex organs in as much detail as possible, without resorting to exploratory surgery. Your doctor will wipe away mucus in your cervix and vagina with a cotton swab before applying a vinegar based solution to this area. This vinegar solution helps to highlight areas of suspicious cell growth. If your doctor finds an unusual area of cells during a colposcopy, a sample of your tissue will be collected and tested in a lab for signs of cancer (biopsy).
The type of tissue removed for your biopsy dictates how much pain you experience during removal. Two biopsy variations that are utilized during a colposcopy are:
- Cervical Biopsy: Causes mild discomfort but is usually not painful. You may experience some pressure or cramping.
- Vaginal Biopsy: Most of the vagina has little sensation, and most vaginal biopsies do not cause much pain. However, if it is a vaginal biopsy collected from the lower portion of the vagina or the vulva, it can cause some definite pain. For this reason, your doctor may administer a local anesthetic to numb that area.
Risks and Complications with a Colposcopy
Getting a colposcopy is relatively safe, and there are very few risks involved. Rarely, complications can occur during your colposcopy. These complications include:
- Heavy Bleeding
- Pelvic Pain
Benefits of a Colposcopy
Unlike the pap smear, which only suggests an abnormality being present in and around the vagina, a colposcopy with a biopsy can provide a definite diagnosis of pre-cancerous changes in the cervix. This diagnosis allows your doctor to prevent cervical cancer from forming by catching cervical abnormalities early and responding with the appropriate treatment plan.
- Colposcopy with Biopsy: If your colposcopy included the removal of a biopsy sample taken from your vagina, you may experience vaginal and vulvar pain, light bleeding, and a dark discharge coming from your vagina.
- Non-Biopsy Colposcopy: If your doctor didn’t remove a sample of your tissue for a biopsy, you would not be under any restrictions on your physical activities. You can resume your normal lifestyle after the exam is complete. You may experience spotting or light bleeding during the two days following your colposcopy.
You should use a pad to catch any blood or discharge that comes out of your vagina. Avoid tampons, douching, and intercourse for at least a week after your biopsy.
Post-Op Warning Signs
Call your doctor if you experience any of these signs or symptoms after your colposcopy, as they could be indications of infection:
- Heavy Menstrual Bleeding
- Severe Abdominal Pain
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