Comedian Kathy Griffin gets a public pap smear on camera in order to promote women's health awareness at the Palomar Hotel on April 16, 2010 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images). Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

What is a Colposcopy?

A colposcopy is a medical procedure used in the detection of cervical cancer. To perform this test, a large microscope, or lens, is placed outside the vagina and focused on the cervix. This microscope is used to look for changes on the cervix that may signal the early signs of cervical cancer. The procedure of colposcopy is simple and relatively painless, although women may feel some pain if a biopsy needs to be performed.

Some doctors may also perform a colposcopy using a digital camera.

Getting a Colposcopy

If you have abnormal cells on a Pap smear, your doctor may recommend that you be scheduled for a colposcopy. Unlike the Pap smear, which looks for detailed cell changes at a microscopic level, the colposcopy allows the doctor to look for changes that are affecting a significant area of your cervix. In other words, it looks for lesions and changes on the organ or tissue level instead of at the cellular level.

When you are scheduled for a colposcopy, you will usually have your feet placed in stirrups, and a speculum will be inserted into your vagina and opened wide enough to make it easy for your doctor to view your cervix. This may cause a feeling of pressure, but it should not be painful.

After the speculum is in, your doctor will swab your cervix with vinegar. This should also be painless. The reason the doctor does this is that the vinegar turns any damaged tissue white, which makes it easier to detect.

In some low-resource settings, this test is done instead of a Pap smear.

At that point, the doctor will use the colposcope to look at your cervix. The colposcope is a lens, microscope, or camera that provides a magnified view of your cervix. This is also painless. The colposcope does not even tough your body.

It's just a way of looking at your cervix in more detail.

If there are visible problems with your cervix seen on colposcopy, your doctor may decide to take a biopsy. This part of the procedure may be slightly painful.

Did You Know?

A colposcope may also be used during LEEP or conization treatment for cervical cancer and pre-cancerous cervical changes since it makes it easier for the doctor to visualize the cervix and perform those procedures accurately.


Adelman MR. Novel advancements in colposcopy: historical perspectives and a systematic review of future developments. J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2014 Jul;18(3):246-60. doi: 10.1097/LGT.0b013e3182a72170.

Sellors J, Lewis K, Kidula N, Muhombe K, Tsu V, Herdman C. Screening and management of precancerous lesions to prevent cervical cancer in low-resource settings. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2003 Jul-Sep;4(3):277-80.

van Niekerk WA, Dunton CJ, Richart RM, Hilgarth M, Kato H, Kaufman RH, Mango LJ, Nozawa S, Robinowitz M. Colposcopy, cervicography, speculoscopy and endoscopy. International Academy of Cytology Task Force summary. Diagnostic Cytology Towards the 21st Century: An International Expert Conference and Tutorial. Acta Cytol. 1998 Jan-Feb;42(1):33-49.

Continue Reading