What to Expect During Your First Colonoscopy

Colonoscopies, an endoscopic procedure in which the colon, rectum and the last part of the intestines, are screened for potentially cancerous growths, are more important than you might think. People with an average risk of colorectal cancer should have their first screening around age 45, and every 10 years after that unless otherwise recommended by your doctor. If you have a family history of colon cancer or other risk factors, your doctor may recommend that you have your first colonoscopy sooner.

Unlike most cancer screenings that perform a solely diagnostic function, colonoscopies can also be therapeutic. This means when a growth—also known as a polyp—is located in the search area, it can be removed during the exam itself, eliminating the need for inconvenient follow-up appointments and stressful wait times.

Polyps are benign growths that are prone to cancerous mutations if they grow within the intestines. Most patients aren’t even aware they have polyps, as they don’t usually cause any symptoms.

Colonoscopies may not be the most comfortable cancer screening, but they are easier than ever thanks to advancements in areas like scheduling and preparation. However, if you’ve never had the exam, it can seem daunting.

Here’s what you need to know. 
  • Preparation Matters: Your doctor will likely ask you to stop eating solid foods at least 24 hours before your procedure, as the bowels need to be clear for effective imaging. They will also prescribe a laxative treatment to ensure total clearing. This can be uncomfortable for some patients but will only last for a day. You can continue to drink clear liquids like water, broth, coffee and some sports drinks. You should also arrange transportation to and from the appointment, as sedative medications are used to minimize discomfort. 
  • During the Procedure: You will be sedated during the exam, but most colonoscopies take only about 30 minutes. During the exam, your doctor will use a long endoscopic camera, called a colonoscope, to inflate the lining of the colon and check for irregularities. Biopsy samples and polyps will also be removed, if necessary. 
  • After Your Colonoscopy: After the exam, you will need to remain in recovery for up to an hour while the effects of the sedatives wear off. There are rarely complications or long-lasting effects after a colonoscopy, but you might experience slight cramping and gas.

You can also start eating again immediately after your exam. You may notice slight blood in your stool if you had polyps or biopsies removed. If bleeding lasts more than a day or becomes severe, you should tell your doctor.

To schedule an appointment for a colonoscopy, call 1-800-INSPIRA.

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Thank you to our editing subject matter expert - Peter J. Senatore, Jr., M.D., F.A.C.S., F.A.S.C.R.S., Colon and Rectal Surgeon.