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A colposcopy is a simple procedure used to look at the cervix, the opening to your womb from your vagina.

It may be done if a cervical screening test (smear test) finds that you have abnormal cells in your cervix.

These cell changes often go away on their own. But sometimes there's a risk they could turn into cervical cancer if you do not have treatment.

A colposcopy helps your doctor or nurse to confirm if cells in your cervix are abnormal. It also helps them decide if you need treatment to remove the cells.

If it's obvious that you have abnormal cells, you may have treatment to remove the cells at the same time as your examination.

If it's not clear if you have abnormal cells, a biopsy sample may be taken and sent to a lab. You'll need to wait until you get your biopsy results to have treatment.

A colposcopy is free if you are referred through the CervicalCheck screening programme.

When you might need a colposcopy

You may need a colposcopy if:

  • you have had 2 or more positive tests in a row for the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • some of the cells in your screening test sample are abnormal
  • the GP or nurse who carried out the screening test thought your cervix did not look as healthy as it should
  • it was not possible to give you a normal (negative) result after several screening tests

Try not to worry if you are told you will need to have a colposcopy. It's very unlikely you have cancer.

Getting a colposcopy appointment

Your GP or nurse will contact a colposcopy clinic and ask them to make an appointment for you.

The colposcopy clinic will send you a letter with your appointment details.

If you cannot attend, please let the colposcopy clinic know. They will reschedule your appointment.

There are 15 colposcopy clinics in Ireland that CervicalCheck use. All are in hospital out-patient departments.

If you are pregnant

It's important that you attend your colposcopy appointment, even if you are pregnant.

A colposcopy examination is safe during pregnancy.

If you need to have treatment, this will usually be delayed until a few months after giving birth.

Read more about having a colposcopy if you're pregnant.

What happens during a colposcopy

You will have your colposcopy in a hospital out-patient department. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes. You can go home the same day.

During the procedure:

  1. You undress from the waist down - a loose skirt may not need to be removed.
  2. A device called a speculum is gently put into your vagina - this is similar to having a screening test.
  3. A microscope with a light is used to look at your cervix.
  4. Special dye is applied to your cervix to highlight any abnormal areas.
  5. A small sample of tissue (a biopsy) may be removed for closer examination in a lab – this may be a bit uncomfortable.

If it's obvious that you have abnormal cells, you may have treatment to remove the cells immediately. This does not take long and can usually be done in 5 or 10 minutes. A biopsy sample will also be sent to a lab.

If it's not clear if you have abnormal cells, a biopsy sample may be taken and sent to a lab. You'll need to wait until you get your biopsy results to have treatment.

Read more about what happens before, during and after a colposcopy.

Results

It's often possible to tell right away if there are any abnormal cells in your cervix. But if you have had a biopsy, you'll need to wait until you get your results by post.

The results of your colposcopy and the results of your biopsy will be either normal or abnormal.

Read more about colposcopy results.

Treatment

You’ll usually have treatment if there’s a moderate or high chance of the cells becoming cancerous.

There are several simple and effective ways to remove the abnormal cells.

These include:

  • LLETZ – a heated wire loop removes the abnormal cells
  • a cone biopsy – a cone-shaped piece of tissue containing the abnormal cells is removed from your cervix
  • cold coagulation - a heat source is applied to the cervix to destroy the abnormal cells

Read more about colposcopy treatments.

Having a colposcopy as a private patient

If you have a colposcopy as a private patient, you will have to pay a fee. Your colposcopy will not be through CervicalCheck.

We will not be able to access your results and information if you have a colposcopy as a private patient.

We only have access to results and recommendations for tests taken with CervicalCheck.

page last reviewed: 30/12/2019
next review due: 30/12/2022