What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is recommended for all people starting at age 45. It is a diagnostic procedure that allows the doctor to view the lining and contents of your large intestine (colon). The test has become standard in the detection of colon polyps, gastrointestinal disorders, colon cancer and other diseases of the gut. After your first colonoscopy, as long as there are no abnormalities or concerns, you only have to repeat the procedure every 10 years. If you have a family history of colon cancer or digestive issues that need monitoring, your doctor may recommend more frequent colonoscopies.

What to expect from a colonoscopy

Before your colonoscopy, your provider's office will provide you with information about how to prepare your body in advance. You may be required to temporarily stop certain medications, such as blood thinners, or certain nutritional supplements like iron because of its effect on your stool (bowel movement). Within several days of your procedure you will need to be on a liquid diet consisting of things such as broth, gelatin (Jell-O), and clear liquid drinks such as apple juice, and to stay away from food or drink containing red or purple dye which can affect visibility when your doctor examines your colon.

You will receive anesthesia for the procedure, making you sleepy and comfortable but still conscious enough to adjust your body position as needed or requested by the doctor. Your doctor will then use a colonoscope, a thin flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end, inserted through the rectum and up through to the other end of the colon. As the colonoscope is slowly pulled back through and out of the anus, your doctor is able to see images on a viewing screen of what's inside your colon. If there are polyps, for example, your doctor can remove these as part of the colonoscopy procedure. If there are cells that appear abnormal, your doctor will also take samples for biopsy to see if they are cancerous.

After the colonoscopy, you will be monitored until the anesthesia wears off and will also be observed for any signs of bleeding or reaction to the procedure. Once it is determined it is safe for you to go home, you will need someone to drive you since the anesthesia may make you drowsy or lightheaded.

If your colonoscopy involves biopsy of cells taken from the colon, the results may take up to two weeks. Your doctor will let you know of any abnormalities, if there are any, and discuss treatment options with you.

Be sure to let your doctor know right away if you experience any symptoms after the colonoscopy, such as unusual bleeding or signs of infection.