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Countdown to colonoscopy

Feeling anxious about undergoing a colonoscopy—the test that examines the colon and rectum for signs of cancer? You’re not alone. Many people fear pain and embarrassment. This guide can help ease your fears.

Schedule your exam

Plan your colonoscopy for a time when you’ll have two days free from work or other commitments. You’ll need a day to prepare and another for the exam and rest afterward. Be sure to:

  • Let medical staff know if you have a condition like heart disease or diabetes that may need special attention.
  • Let medical staff know what medicines you’re taking, since you may need to stop drugs like iron or aspirin seven days before the exam or modify another drug’s dose.
  • Obtain your bowel preparation kit from your pharmacy. It will contain laxatives and instructions about how to prepare for your procedure.

Prep day

Follow preparation instructions to the letter. Your bowel must be completely empty. You should:

  • Follow the clear liquid diet as instructed. Choose fat-free bouillon or broth, water, gelatin (avoid red or orange flavors), black coffee or plain tea.
  • Take your laxatives on time. For example, if you’re scheduled for an early morning exam, you may first have to take one or more tablets that have a stool softener and laxative effect about midday on prep day, depending on what your provider orders. You’ll then take a liquid laxative around dinnertime. It can come in a three-ounce bottle or a gallon-size jug. The liquid’s taste will be your biggest obstacle. To improve the taste, try refrigerating the laxative for 30 minutes before drinking it.
  • Drink your entire laxative quickly. Drinking through a straw may help. With the gallon-size prep, try to drink a glass every 10 to 30 minutes or so until it’s finished. If you feel nauseated or bloated, take a short break or slow down the rate (just don’t sip). Have water or ginger ale handy to wash the taste away.
  • Stay near the bathroom. Most preparations begin to work within 30 to 60 minutes and may have lasting effects for up to three hours or more.
  • Fast as directed. Don’t eat or drink—not even black coffee—for four to six hours before your exam.

Exam day

The procedure takes about an hour. You’ll be given intravenous fluids and medicine to help you relax. You may even fall asleep. During the exam:

  • A gastroenterologist or surgeon inserts a colonoscope, a long flexible tube, into your rectum and guides it into the colon. A tiny video camera at the tip helps look for cancerous polyps.
  • He or she may pump air into your colon to inflate it a bit for a better view. This can cause cramping. Take slow deep breaths to relieve the pressure.
  • If one or more suspicious polyps are spotted, they’ll be removed or biopsied. These treatments usually don’t cause pain or discomfort.

Safe aftercare

You’ll remain on bed rest at the facility for an hour or two, or until the relaxing medicine wears off. Then:

  • You may still feel woozy, which wears off with time.
  • You may have cramping, which is eased by passing gas or walking.
  • You should be driven home and not attempt driving for the remainder of the day.
  • Call your healthcare provider if you experience persistent abdominal pain, continue to pass blood or blood clots or have a fever of 100° F or higher.