What it’s like to get a colonoscopy — before, during and after

February 27, 2019 | by S. Dharan Kumar, MD

Have you been postponing a colonoscopy?

You’ll likely need to begin routine colonoscopies starting at age 50 (earlier if you’re at a higher risk). If it’s time for your colonoscopy but you’re avoiding the procedure because you don’t know what to expect, read on.

The truth is that this test is safe and minimally invasive. It can also help save your life.

A colonoscopy is part of the screening process for colorectal cancer, a typically slow-growing cancer that may not present symptoms until it’s progressed to a later stage. Fortunately, a colonoscopy can help your physician find pre-cancerous changes cancer early — before it has a chance to spread and when it’s easier to treat.

Still feeling uneasy about getting a colonoscopy? Here’s what to expect before, during and after the procedure:

Before

The prep of a colonoscopy is often the worst part, but it’s easier than it used to be — and it’s the key part of your colonoscopy. You should follow your gastroenterologist’s instructions carefully so you don’t have to do this twice. If your prep is poor and your doctor cannot adequately see inside your colon, you may need to repeat the exam. What’s worse, if your colon lining isn’t clear, then polyps (a precursor for cancer) can be missed.

To have a successful colonoscopy, your colon needs to be empty and clean. A few days before your procedure, you’ll switch to a low-fiber diet and eat things like eggs, pasta, bread and meat. One day before the procedure, you’ll move to a clear liquid diet, including clear chicken broth, vegetable broth, water and tea. (Avoid red and purple food dye).

Next, you’ll start drinking the liquid your gastroenterologist prescribes. Fortunately, bowel-cleaning agents have become better-tasting in recent years. The regimen is also more tolerable. In a split-dose regimen, you take the first dose the night before the colonoscopy and the second dose in the morning, six hours prior to the colonoscopy.

Remember, a successful prep helps your doctor get a good look at your colon during the procedure, so he/she can find and remove as many precancerous growths as possible.

During

The day of your appointment, you’ll meet your care team after you sign in. You will then change into a gown and have a small IV placed in your arm. Once you get into the exam room, your doctor will have you lie on your left side on the exam table. You’ll be sedated through the IV in your arm, so you won’t feel any pain or discomfort during the procedure.

Your doctor will use a fiber optic scope to look for any abnormalities in your colon (large intestine). The scope has a small camera attached to a flexible tube that examines and takes pictures of the inside of the colon. Your doctor will use this tool to find and remove any polyps (small growths on the colon wall) before they’ve had a chance to grow and turn into cancer.

You’ll probably be there for about two to three hours total, including prep, procedure (which takes 30-45 minutes) and recovery.

After

After the procedure, your doctor will share the results. Some of the findings of a colonoscopy are known right away. If your doctor needed to remove a polyp, it may take a few days or longer to get the results.

Most people feel normal and can begin eating again shortly after the procedure, but start eating lightly. You should be able to drive and work again the following day.

If you’re concerned about getting a colonoscopy, talk with your doctor. Ask as many questions as you need so you feel more comfortable.

Colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, but only if you do your part. Regular colonoscopies can be life-saving.

Not sure where to start? Check out our step-by-step guide for getting a colonoscopy.

Are you at risk for colon cancer? Take the ColonAware Risk Assessment to find out.

Related blogs:

I’m supposed to get a colonoscopy, what are my next steps?

How to make a colonoscopy more comfortable

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