Colposcopy means looking at the cervix, to try to see where any cell changes seen in your screening test sample have come from.
The person who does the examination is called a colposcopist and may be a doctor or a nurse. They use a colposcope – which looks like a pair of binoculars on a stand, with a bright light – to look for the cell changes. The colposcope does not go inside you. Having a colposcopy is a lot like having a smear test.
You can usually see your cervix on a screen if you want to watch. Most clinics are able to take a picture and save this in your hospital records, if you are happy with this.
Once the colposcopist has had a look at your cervix, they will dab some liquid onto it. This makes the cell changes appear. The liquid used is a dilute vinegar solution (3-5% acetic acid. If there are any cell changes, this liquid makes them appear white. Sometimes the vinegar solution can sting a little.
The colposcopist might also use an iodine solution to show up any areas of cell change.
If the colposcopist sees an area that looks like there are cell changes, they usually ask if they can take a biopsy. This means taking a small pinch of skin from the surface of the cervix, about the size of a grain of rice. This biopsy is sent to the laboratory for them to look at.
If you have a biopsy taken, you are usually advised not to have sex for a week, and to avoid using tampons, going swimming and baths.
Sometimes, the colposcopist will offer to treat cell changes at a first visit (see treatment). They will explain this to you at the clinic.
The colposcopist will write to you with the results of any biopsies taken. They will tell you whether you need any treatment or further appointments. If you don't need to be seen again, they will tell your when to have your next smear test.
This information is also available on our leaflet, Your Colposcopy Appointment.