A colposcopy is a procedure a doctor may request to check for cervical cancer. It can cause mild discomfort, soreness, cramping, or bleeding. However, it does not often cause long lasting or severe pain.

A colposcopy is one way to diagnose cervical cancer. A doctor may recommend the test after a pelvic exam and Pap test.

Read on to learn about what to expect from a colposcopy.

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According to the American Cancer Society, a colposcopy is no more painful than other exams that use a speculum.

A person may experience a few days of light pain that may be similar to period pain. They may also feel a tingling sensation during the procedure due to the liquid that enters the cervix.

If the doctor needs to remove some of the cells during the colposcopy, an individual may feel a slight pinching or scratching sensation.

If people notice any of the following symptoms afterward, they should contact their doctor immediately:

  • very heavy bleeding
  • discharge with an unpleasant odor
  • persistent or recurrent stomach pain

Learn more about colposcopies.

A doctor may recommend a colposcopy after noticing the following clinical signs:

Early symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • vaginal bleeding following sex or menopause
  • vaginal bleeding between periods
  • heavier periods than usual
  • watery vaginal discharge with a strong odor that may contain blood
  • dyspareunia, or painful sex
  • pelvic pain

A person with any of these symptoms may receive a referral for a colposcopy.

Learn more about the symptoms of cervical cancer.

A colposcopist, who is a medical professional specializing in colposcopies, carries out the procedure. However, a doctor may sometimes perform the examination.

Before the procedure starts, a person may need to remove the clothing on their lower body. If they are wearing a loose skirt or long jumper, they may be able to keep these on.

The individual then lies down, placing their legs on a padded support, ready for the colposcopy. The steps of the procedure are as follows:

  1. The doctor inserts a device called a speculum, which is tube-shaped and holds the vagina open to allow inspection. This may feel uncomfortable but should not cause pain.
  2. They then insert a microscope with a light attachment to help them see inside the vagina. This does not enter the vagina.
  3. The medical professional conducting the colposcopy then applies a fluid to the cervix that highlights irregular cells in the cervix. This may tingle or sting.
  4. In some cases, the doctor needs to remove some cervical tissue to view the cells under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. As this happens, a person might notice a scratching or pinching feeling.

Learn about biopsies for cervical cancer.

If someone is concerned about potential pain during a colposcopy, it is best to ask a doctor whether it is safe to take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication in advance.

A person receiving a colposcopy may need to avoid having penetrative sex at least 24 hours before the procedure. They may also need to avoid inserting anything into the vagina, including:

  • medication
  • creams
  • tampons

It is best not to undergo a colposcopy during menstruation. Those receiving a colposcopy should also inform a doctor if they are pregnant.

People who receive a colposcopy can usually return home and rest straight afterward.

If the doctor or colposcopist has performed a biopsy to remove a cell sample, they will send it to a laboratory to check for cancerous cells. Bleeding may last a little longer if tissue removal takes place during the procedure.

Mild pain may persist for a few days after a colposcopy. A person may choose to take pain relief medication to help manage any pain.

If the doctor or colposcopist does not find any irregular cells, they will usually be able to inform the person straight away.

Around 40% of people have typical results after a colposcopy. Around 60% of people show atypical cells during a colposcopy. These are often the result of an irregularity called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). This is not a type of cancer but may become cancerous without treatment.

Similar irregularities may show from the cells of the glands in the birth canal’s inner lining. These are known as atypicular glandular cells. They are less common than CIN but mean an individual has a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

The doctor grades CIN depending on its severity. CIN 1 is the lowest, and CIN 3 presents the highest risk of developing cancer.

A doctor may recommend removing the atypical cells to reduce this risk.

In rare cases, a colposcopy will detect cervical cancer. If this happens, a person’s doctor can refer them to specialists to discuss treatment options.

A colposcopy is a procedure that a doctor may recommend to check for cervical cancer. People may feel a slight tingling or stinging sensation during the process and may also experience mild pain for a few days afterward.

The doctor may take a biopsy to check for irregular cells. In this case, the person receiving a colposcopy may feel scratching or pinching. They may also have some bleeding.

People can contact a doctor on ways to manage pain from a colposcopy. They may recommend using pain relief medication.