The cervix is a narrow tube which forms the lower part of the uterus as part of the female reproductive system. Routine cervical screening tests (commonly known as smear tests) are recommended for all women over the age of twenty-five. These tests highlight approximately five per cent of women that may have abnormal cells which require a diagnostic colposcopy.
Abnormal cells in the cervix, caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) are not cancer cells. However, if left untreated for many years these abnormal cells may turn in to cancer cells. As such, routine cervical screening tests and follow up colposcopy procedures are intended to remove these cells prior to them becoming a problem.
A colposcopy diagnostic procedure is performed in the event that routine cervical screening tests indicate there may be abnormal cells or in the event of certain symptoms.
A diagnostic procedure is performed without the need for anaesthetic. A medical device known as a speculum is used to open the vagina. A microscope is then used to examine the relevant areas of the vagina and cervix under light.
A liquid called acetic wash is then applied to the cervix which is able to further highlight any areas of abnormal cells. Any abnormal cells are then excised for a biopsy to be performed.
If your specialist strongly suspects that they have detected abnormal cells they may continue with treatment during the same procedure. However, under most circumstances biopsy results will be awaited which may take four to eight weeks. Your specialist will advise on the most appropriate treatment for treating abnormal cells depending on the results of the diagnostic colposcopy.
The most common procedure used to treat abnormal cells is termed a loop excision or loop diathermy. This procedure is performed under a local anaesthetic and uses a heated wire loop to remove any abnormal cells.
An alternative is a cone biopsy which uses a scalpel to remove any areas of abnormal cells under general anaesthetic.
A colposcopy is a very safe procedure and side effects are minimal. These may include:
- Mild vaginal pain which often lasts one to two days
- Mild vaginal bleeding
- Dark discharge from the vagina
- General anaesthetic risks (commonly nausea and fatigue) if you have been treated under general anaesthetic