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Colonoscopy Questions & Answers

Are you wondering if you need a colonoscopy? Or do you have one scheduled and don’t know what to expect? Read on to get answers to the most common questions about this test.

What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a test to check the inside of your colon and rectum and look for irritated and swollen tissue, ulcers, cancer and abnormal growths called polyps. Most polyps are not cancer, but a small number of them can develop into cancer over time.

Why is a screening colonoscopy recommended?

A colonoscopy is one way of screening for cancer of the colon and rectum (also called colorectal cancer). Screening means testing for a disease when you have no symptoms. A screening colonoscopy may find colon cancer at an early stage, when there is a better chance at curing it.

Who should have a screening colonoscopy?

Experts recommend a screening colonoscopy for people who are 50 or older, every 10 years. If you are 75 or older, ask your healthcare provider whether a screening colonoscopy is right for you.

A screening colonoscopy is also recommended for some people younger than 50 if they have a family history of colon cancer or other health issue that increases their risk of colon cancer. These individuals may also require more frequent screenings.

How is a colonoscopy done?

A screening colonoscopy is done in an outpatient medical center or hospital. You will be given medicine to make you sleepy and relaxed during the procedure. A specially trained doctor puts a long, flexible video camera, called a colonoscope, into the anus and guides it through the intestinal tract. Most people are asleep while this is being done and they don’t feel anything. The camera projects images onto a TV screen so that the doctor can see any abnormalities in the tissue lining the colon and rectum. If the test finds polyps, the doctor will probably remove them and will also take samples of any suspicious-looking tissue so it can be checked for cancer.

Does a colonoscopy hurt?

You may feel pressure as the scope moves through the intestinal tract and some brief cramping and gas pains. After the procedure, some people have discomfort such as cramping and bloating, but it’s unusual to experience any pain.

How long does a colonoscopy take?

The colonoscopy procedure takes between 30 to 60 minutes, and the time at the facility takes an average of 2 to 4 hours including preparation and recovery.

What can I expect before the colonoscopy ?

Your doctor will provide you with written bowel prep instructions to follow at home prior to the procedure. You may be asked to avoid certain foods and medicines for 1 to 3 days before the procedure. You will be instructed to drink only clear liquids to get your bowels completely empty and clean. Your doctor will let you know when to start this clear, liquid diet. Most people stay home the day before the colonoscopy to do the prep, which may require drinking a solution to help clean out your bowels. You will also be instructed not to eat after a certain point in the day. Some people find the prep to be the most unpleasant part of a colonoscopy. Your Rite Aid Pharmacist can answer questions about the prep and prep solution you drink the day before.

What can I expect after?

After a colonoscopy, you may have some cramping or bloating. If the doctor removed polyps or did a biopsy, you may have light bleeding. Before you leave the outpatient center or hospital, the doctor will discuss some results from the procedure, but biopsy results may take several days to a week.

Because you were given medicine to make you sleepy, you will need someone to drive you home after the procedure. You should be able to go back to your normal daily activities and regular diet by the day after the colonoscopy. Normal bowel function should return within 2 to 3 days.

Are there any risks to having a colonoscopy?

Complications from colonoscopy are not common, but they do happen. The risks include bleeding, abdominal pain, perforation of the colon, infection (very rare), and reaction to the sedative medicine that causes breathing problems or low blood pressure.

Are there other ways to get screened for colon cancer?

Other screening tests include:

  • Stool test for blood: a home test that involves collecting a stool sample and sending it to a lab for testing.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: a test done in a doctor’s office; it examines the rectum and only the lower part of the colon.
  • Virtual colonoscopy (CT colonography): a scan of the colon and rectum to look for abnormal tissue or growths; usually done in a special CT room.

These tests need to be done more often than colonoscopy. If a test result is abnormal, then a colonoscopy is usually recommended.

These articles are not a substitute for medical advice, and are not intended to treat or cure any disease. Advances in medicine may cause this information to become outdated, invalid, or subject to debate. Professional opinions and interpretations of scientific literature may vary. Consult your healthcare professional before making changes to your diet, exercise or medication regimen.


Colonoscopy, Medline Plus, National Institutes of Health:

Colon Cancer Screening, Medline Plus, National Institutes of Health:

Final Recommendation Statement, Colorectal Cancer Screening, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force:

Colonoscopy, American College of Surgeons:

Colonoscopy, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK):