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Understanding When a Colposcopy is Necessary

colposcopy, Capital Women’s Care, Arlington and McLean, Virginia

Pap smears save lives. These routine gynecological exams detect abnormal changes in cervical cells that could go on to become cancer. Early detection and treatment lowers the chances of dying of cervical cancer. However, it can feel scary to learn of an abnormal Pap smear result, and if your doctor recommends a colposcopy, its normal to think the worst. Learn when a colposcopy is necessary and why it isn’t always a cause for alarm.

Pap smears: a life-saving screening tool

Over the last 25 years the death rate from cervical cancer has continued to decline. This is primarily attributed to increased use of Pap smears, a screening tool that checks for abnormal changes in cervical cells.

When you visit your OB/GYN for a Pap smear, your cervix is gently scraped and a sample of your cervical cells are sent to a lab for analysis. Most of the time results come back normal and there’s nothing to worry about.

At the same time, abnormal Pap tests are very common. Your doctor may recommend a colposcopy if your Pap test comes back looking questionable.

Don’t panic

A colposcopy is a more thorough exam that your provider uses to examine your cervix, vagina, or vulva for abnormal cells. A colposcope is a large microscope that magnifies the area so that your provider can check closely for changes.

If you’ve been told that you need a colposcopy, it’s important not to panic. Most women who have a colposcopy have a normal result. In most cases your immune system clears the abnormal cells on its own, and follow-up Pap smears can monitor the situation to ensure that the immune system does its job.

When is a colposcopy necessary?

There are a number of reasons your provider may recommend a colposcopy.

1. A high-risk strain of HPV is detected

Two strains of human papillomavirus are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. Your provider may recommend a colposcopy if your Pap smear detects either of these high-risk HPV strains. Performing a colposcopy helps ensure that the Pap smear didn’t miss any abnormal cells caused by HPV.

2. An abnormal result with positive HPV

If you have HPV and the Pap smear detects abnormal changes in your cervical cells, performing a colposcopy is necessary to get a closer look at the changes to your cervix. It enables your provider to see where the abnormal cells are and how much your cervix has changed since your last Pap smear.

3. There are high-grade changes

Some changes to the cervix are more serious than others. Keep in mind that most women who have abnormal cells do not have cervical cancer. Most early changes are monitored and go away on their own.

However, high-grade changes in cervical cells may turn into cancer if not treated. A colposcopy is necessary when there are considerable changes in cervical cells.

When is a repeat colposcopy needed?

Your provider may recommend a repeat colposcopy if your cervical cells remain abnormal on a repeat Pap smear. The repeat colposcopy checks to ensure that the abnormal cells are not cancerous.

A colposcopy is a quick and painless procedure. The colposcope does not go inside of the vagina. This in-office diagnostic exam takes roughly 10-15 minutes and provides valuable insight into your gynecologic health. Your provider will contact you directly with the results and next steps.

Count on our providers at Capital Women’s Care for the highest quality in obstetric and gynecologic care. To learn more, call or book online to schedule an appointment at one of our clinics in Arlington and McLean, Virginia.

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