What is a colposcopy?

A colposcopy is an examination of the womb, and in particular, the cervix. A speculum, a tool used to see inside the vagina, is placed in the individual and gently opened. Then, using a colposcope (a large magnifying glass), a doctor or specialist nurse can look at cells which cover the cervix.

A colposcopy won’t usually be performed when an individual is on their period as this can cause complications when examining the cervix. It is possible to have a colposcopy during pregnancy.

There are a few reasons for having a colposcopy, but usually, they are done after a smear test has identified abnormal cells.

Abnormal cells may sound frightening, but they simply indicate that cells in the cervix have changed. It’s important to identify abnormal cells on the cervix as some cells will go away on their own, but others can lead to cervical cancer if not treated. A colposcopy will be able to determine the next course of action.

As colposcopies are a sensitive procedure for women, there are steps which can be taken to help individuals relax, it’s common practice to bring along a family member or close friend.

The procedure, usually done in a hospital clinic, takes roughly 20 minutes. Patients will undress from the waist down and get in a comfortable chair, usually with the legs raised so a doctor can see clearly.

Once the speculum is inserted and the colposcope is in place, the doctor will apply a special liquid to the cervix. This special liquid shows where cells on the cervix have changed. At this stage, it’s usually possible to tell right away if there are abnormal cells.

If needed, the doctor may extract cells from the cervix; this is known as a biopsy. These cells will then be sent to a laboratory for testing. The effects of this may be uncomfortable for the individual and can cause small bleeding. Following a biopsy, it’s sometimes advised the individual should avoid sex, using tampons and restrain from physical activity for a couple of days. Roughly 60% of women show abnormal cells during a colposcopy.

Following a colposcopy, if treatment is needed on abnormal cells, the doctor can perform a large loop excision of the transformation zone, known as an LLETZ.

During an LLETZ the transformation zone, the area at the entrance of the birth canal, is cut away from the cervix using electrical wire, extracting the abnormal cells. The patient is under local anaesthetic for this procedure.

The success rate for an LLETZ is very high.

This article is intended to inform and give insight but not treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a doctor. Always seek medical advice with any questions regarding a medical condition.

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