If a person receives a positive human papillomavirus (HPV) result from a Pap smear, they need a colposcopy to confirm the diagnosis. This is a minimally invasive procedure that healthcare professionals perform in a doctor’s office.

Longlasting or untreated infections of certain strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer. Doctors recommend that all people with cervixes undergo testing for atypical cells that may indicate an HPV infection.

A colposcopy allows a doctor to take a closer look at the cells lining the cervix. Sometimes, a doctor will take a biopsy that will undergo analysis in a laboratory.

Read on to learn about why a colposcopy is necessary if a person receives a positive HPV result, along with what to expect and how to prepare.

Gynecological cabinet with colposcope in modern clinic to perform a colposcopy for a person with HPV -2.Share on Pinterest
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A person with HPV or an atypical Pap smear result will need a colposcopy.

During the procedure, a doctor will use a colposcope, which is a long magnifying scope with a light. This allows them to examine the cells lining the cervix in detail.

A positive HPV result does not mean that a person has cervical cancer. Therefore, it is important for a healthcare professional to examine the atypical cells and check for signs of cancer.

Other reasons why someone may need a colposcopy include:

  • an inconclusive Pap smear result
  • atypical cervical cells
  • a healthcare professional thinks the cervix looks atypical

When a person tests positive for HPV, it means that a doctor determines they have an infection of certain strains of HPV. These strains have links to a higher risk of cervical cancer than others.

Most notably, the high risk strains include types 16 and 18.

A colposcopy is a necessary follow-up test that will allow a doctor to determine if the atypical cells in the cervix are cancerous. This allows for early diagnosis of cervical cancer, which is essential to ensure treatment is as effective as possible.

Sometimes, a doctor may take a biopsy, which involves taking a small tissue sample for testing.

If cancer is present, a biopsy can help determine the stage and extent of cell changes. This information may be necessary to help a doctor determine the most effective treatment.

Depending on the results of the pap smear and the type of HPV a person has, a doctor may recommend other follow-up tests. These can include:

  • repeat Pap smears
  • repeat HPV tests
  • a biopsy

Doctors may recommend direct treatment for a positive HPV test. However, this typically only occurs with very high risk results. It may involve conization, which involves removing atypical cells from the cervix with a cone-shaped piece of tissue.

A colposcopy is a minimally invasive procedure doctors typically carry out in their office or clinic.

How to prepare

Some doctors may prefer that a person is not menstruating during a colposcopy, as it can make visualizing the cervix more difficult. This is not always the case, so it is a suitable idea for the individual to check with a healthcare professional first.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that a person avoid the following for at least 24 hours before the procedure:

  • having sex
  • using vaginal suppository medications
  • using tampons or other internal sanitary items
  • douching

What to expect

A colposcopy should feel relatively similar to a Pap smear. Below is an explanation of what the procedure involves.

  1. The individual will sit back with their feet raised onto footrests.
  2. A healthcare professional then inserts a colposcope, which holds the vaginal wall and vulva open slightly.
  3. They will apply a cool solution, which makes any atypical areas of tissue easier for the doctor to view.
  4. They will then shine a light through the colposcope, allowing them to view the vulva, vagina, and cervix enlarged and clearly.
  5. If a doctor decides to perform a biopsy during the colposcopy, the individual may notice a cramping or scraping sensation as the doctor removes the pieces of tissue.

A person can expect mild cramping and possible bleeding for 1–2 days after the procedure. Some clinicians use a hemostatic agent, such as silver nitrate sticks, on the cervix to stop the bleeding.

If the bleeding worsens or does not go away, individuals need to contact a doctor.

The following are some questions a person may want to consider asking before a colposcopy:

  • whether they need to remove inserted birth control such as a vaginal ring or intrauterine device
  • how long to expect to wait for the results
  • whether they can bring another person with them for the procedure
  • what the next steps are

A colposcopy is necessary after a positive HPV result to determine whether an individual has precancerous or cancerous cells in their cervix.

During the procedure, a doctor may take a biopsy. If they do, the individual can expect to feel a slight pinching or scraping sensation that causes mild and temporary pain.