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Colposcopy FAQs

On this page, we answer some common questions about colposcopy. 

Colposcopy appointments

Like cervical screening, colposcopy is a test to help prevent cancer. It examines in a more detailed way any cells that look abnormal at screening. If abnormal cells are confirmed at colposcopy, they can be treated long before they become cancerous.  

Another reason someone may be referred for colposcopy is if cervical screening hasn’t been able to give a clear result, for example, because insufficient cells were collected. 

A patient may also be invited for colposcopy if their cervix didn’t look as healthy as it should at screening, or if they have symptoms such as abnormal vaginal bleeding.  

It’s very rare for cancer to be found at colposcopy.  But this is more likely to happen if someone doesn’t attend regular cervical screening, one of the best ways to prevent cancer. So it’s important to help your patients make an informed decision about attending screening appointments – you can read more in our cervical screening section.

This can be very confusing for patients but the two procedures are different tests, looking for different things. 

Cervical screening looks for human papillomavirus (HPV) and/or evidence of abnormalities in cells. It’s a snapshot of the health of cervical cells and indicates whether more testing is needed. 

Colposcopy looks more closely at the cervix. It can confirm whether there are any abnormal cells and whether these need to be treated. So a patient may have an abnormal screening result but at colposcopy may be told their cervix is healthy. Around 4 in 10 have a normal result at colposcopy.  

An inadequate result doesn’t mean cells are abnormal. It can happen for a number of reasons. For example, it may have been difficult to obtain enough cells, or blood in the sample may have obscured cells. If this happens several times, someone will be referred for colposcopy. The colposcopist has specialised equipment to help them look in detail at the cervix and take another sample of cells, so a clear result can usually be given.  

Sometimes, the colposcopist needs more information about cells that look abnormal. They will take a small sample of tissue from the cervix to be tested. This is usually described as feeling like a pinch. A biopsy can help doctors work out the risk of abnormal cells becoming cancerous in future. Often, cell changes go back to normal and treatment would be unnecessary. Information from a biopsy can give doctors and patients the information they need to make a decision together.  

In the 24 hours before the appointment, they should avoid having sex or using anything inside the vagina. That includes medications, lubricants, tampons and menstrual cups. You could advise patients to take a sanitary pad or panty liner with them, as they may have some light bleeding or discharge afterwards.

Colposcopy is safe during pregnancy but if a biopsy or treatment is needed, a patient will usually be advised to wait and have those after the birth. The procedure isn’t usually carried out during a period, simply because the blood can make it harder for the colposcopist to see the cervix. However, if bleeding’s light, it can usually still be done. The patient should contact the clinic for advice if they’re expecting a period around the time of the appointment. 

Yes. An examination can be carried out while someone’s wearing their coil. If a biopsy and/or treatment are needed, a colposcopist will usually be able to carry that out around the coil. 

It feels very similar to cervical screening. For most women and people with a cervix, that means it’s uncomfortable but not usually painful. There may be some discomfort when the colposcopist inserts the speculum and opens the cervix, and sometimes the liquids used to stain the cells may cause mild stinging or tingling. The procedure is over very quickly. 

However, just like screening, colposcopy can be painful for some. You can help by encouraging patients to talk about their past experiences with cervical screening so the colposcopist knows they’ve found similar procedures difficult, and can take extra steps to help. 

It’s worth noting some women and people with a cervix find colposcopy can actually be more comfortable than routine screening. Colposcopists are highly trained and experienced and have specialised equipment that may help make the procedure more straightforward. 

After colposcopy

If you have a biopsy at colposcopy, you may have some side effects, including:

  • cramps, like period pains
  • some light bleeding 
  • changes to vaginal discharge. 

These side effects may last for a few days, but shouldn’t last very long or get worse. If any effects do get worse, tell your colposcopist or GP. 

Read more about colposcopy >

After colposcopy, it is important to listen to your body and take any time you need to rest. Remember, we all heal at different rates, so what feels right for someone else may not be right for you.

If you have had a biopsy, you may feel okay to do your usual exercise straight away. 

If you have had treatment, you may take a little longer to heal, but you can exercise as soon as you feel ready. Any side effects usually last for about 4 weeks, so you may want to avoid heavy exercise during that time. If you do exercise, any bleeding may get a little heavier after. 

If you have any worries or want to ask about a specific exercise, speak with your colposcopist.

Read about treatment for cell changes >

Sometimes, a biopsy or treatment you have at colposcopy can cause bleeding or changes to your vaginal discharge. If this happens, it is best to wait until this has stopped before you have vaginal penetrative sex. This includes:

  • vaginal sex – for example, being penetrated by a penis, dildo or other object
  • fingering (having fingers inside your vagina)
  • oral sex (having a tongue inside your vagina).

The general rule is don’t put anything in your vagina while you have any side effects. If you want to have anal sex or clitoral stimulation, this shouldn’t make any side effects worse. 

If you are worried or have specific questions, it is best to speak to your colposcopist. 

Read about what happens at colposcopy >

Colposcopy results

It may take 4 to 8 weeks to get colposcopy results. Your doctor (colposcopist) usually sends a letter with your results. If your results take longer than this, you can call the hospital or your colposcopist to check on them.

If your colposcopist thinks you may have cervical cancer, you may be offered a telephone call or be invited to the colposcopy clinic within 2 to 3 weeks to get your results.

Waiting for results can be a really anxious time, but remember we are here if you need any support.

Read more about getting colposcopy results >

Cervical screening does not diagnose cell changes. It is a snapshot of cervical cells that suggest whether you need further tests. 

Your colposcopy will usually look at a piece of your cervical tissue (taken by biopsy or treatment). It is a much more detailed look at your cervix. This means your colposcopy result may be different to your cervical screening result. Not everyone referred to colposcopy after cervical screening:

  • has cell changes
  • has the type or grade of cell changes their cervical screening result suggested. 

Read more about colposcopy results >

No. Cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) and cervical glandular intraepithelial neoplasia (CGIN) means you have cell changes (abnormal cells) on your cervix. These changes are not cancer but, without monitoring or treatment, they may develop into cervical cancer.

Read more about CIN and CGIN > 

If and when you have a follow-up appointment after colposcopy depends on:

  • your colposcopy results
  • whether you had treatment (at your first appointment or a further appointment).

Your colposcopist, or the hospital you had colposcopy at, should be able to tell you about any follow-up appointments.

If your colposcopy results show no cell changes (abnormal cells)

If your colposcopy results show no cell changes, you do not need any further appointments. You will be invited back for cervical screening (a smear test) in 3 or 5 years, depending on your age.

If your colposcopy results show low-grade cell changes 

If your colposcopy results show low-grade cell changes (also called CIN1), there are a few different options:

  • Your colposcopist may look at your individual situation and recommend you do not need treatment. This is because it is unlikely that CIN1 will develop into cervical cancer – often, the cells go back to normal on their own. This is called conservative management.
  • Your colposcopist may look at your individual situation and recommend you do have treatment.

If you have CIN2, your colposcopist may also look at all these options. If you have any questions or concerns, speak with them so they can explain their recommendation.

Read more about CIN and CGIN >

If your colposcopy results show you need treatment

If your colposcopy results show you need treatment, you will usually have a further appointment within 4 to 6 weeks.

Read more about colposcopy results > 

If you had treatment, you will usually have a follow-up appointment about 6 months after. 

Read more about follow-up after treatment for cell changes (abnormal cells) > 

Colposcopy and coronavirus

If your colposcopy appointment is still happening, your doctor will have made that decision with your health and any risk in mind. If you are worried about going to the hospital, it is best to ring their number and ask what you should do. They will be able to give you advice and support based on your individual situation.

We can also give you support and talk through your options. You can give us a call on 0808 802 8000.

Get support >

Your doctor at the hospital will be able to answer any questions about your colposcopy appointment best, but we hope the explanation below also helps.

In these unusual circumstances, your doctor may decide it is safer to postpone your colposcopy appointment. It is important that you and health workers are as protected as possible from coronavirus and, at the moment, the risk of you going to the hospital and potentially coming into contact with coronavirus may be greater than the risk of your appointment being postponed. 

It may help to remember that having HPV and cell changes are not cervical cancer. About 9 in 10 people get rid of HPV within 2 years and many low grade cell changes go back to normal without treatment. It’s also good to remember that cervical cancer itself is rare. We know you may still be worried, so if you want to talk any of this through our free Helpline is here for you – call us on 0808 802 8000.

Get support >

If you are currently being monitored or have had treatment for cell changes, you may be concerned if your follow up appointments temporarily stop. In these unusual circumstances, your doctor may decide it is safer for appointments to be postponed to make sure you and health workers are as protected as possible from coronavirus. If this happens, you do not need to do anything except follow the government advice.

It may help to remember that having HPV or cell changes in the past does not mean you will still have them. About 9 in 10 people get rid of HPV within 2 years and many cell changes go back to normal without treatment. If you have had treatment, it is usually very successful at removing cell changes. It’s also good to remember that cervical cancer itself develops very slowly and is rare, so most people will not develop it at all. 

We know this might not answer all of your concerns, so if you want to talk any of this through our free Helpline is here for you – call us on 0808 802 8000.

Thank you to all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, and the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it. 

References

  • NHS. Colposcopy – treatment. Found at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colposcopy/treatment/
  •   NHS. Colposcopy. Found at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colposcopy/
  •   NHS Cervical Cancer: Diagnosis Found at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-cancer/diagnosis/
  •   NHS. Colposcopy – results. Found at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colposcopy/results/
  •   BSCCP. FAQs. Found at: https://www.bsccp.org.uk/women/frequently-asked-questions
  •   NHS. Colposcopy – results. Found at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colposcopy/results/
  •   NHS Colposcopy – what happens. Found at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/colposcopy/what-happens/
  •   BSCCP. FAQs. Found at: https://www.bsccp.org.uk/women/frequently-asked-questions

We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]

Read more about how we research and write our information >

Cell changes >

Read about what cell changes are and how they are monitored or treated.

More questions?

If you have questions or concerns about cervical screening, get a confidential response from a medical professional.

Ask the Expert
Date last updated: 
13 May 2020
Date due for review: 
27 May 2022
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