How to prep for a colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is one of the best ways to detect colon cancer early, but colonoscopy preparation can cause stress and anxiety. Knowing what to expect when getting ready for a colonoscopy can help to make the process easier.

First, it’s helpful to understand why a colonoscopy is recommended. Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States for women and men. Every year, 145,000 Americans are diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. The good news is that death rates have been declining over the past few decades, thanks to screening tests, early detection, and  removal of precancerous and early-stage cancerous polyps in the colon. When caught early, colon cancer can be treated effectively more than 90 percent of the time.

To schedule a colon cancer screening at the UPMC Digestive Health and Endoscopy Center, call 1-800-533-8762.

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How to Prepare for a Colonoscopy

The colon and rectum make up the large intestine, part of the lower digestive system, and it’s these areas that are targeted for colonoscopy preparation.

Prepping for a colonoscopy — the process of cleaning out the bowels to give the doctor a clear view — starts several days before the procedure. Each doctor and medical center have a specific preparation method, but the basic idea is to combine a low-fiber diet and liquids to empty your bowels.

Diet: A few days before the procedure, you’ll start to decrease the amount of food you eat. It’s recommended that you stick with low-fiber foods since they pass through the digestive system faster. You can eat foods like white bread, pasta, and rice; lean proteins like chicken, fish, and eggs; and well-cooked vegetables without the skin. Avoid eating seeds, nuts, dried or raw fruits, raw vegetables, and whole grains.

Liquids: On the day before and the day of the procedure, you’ll only drink clear liquids, such as bouillon, tea, sports drinks, some juices, and clear sodas. You’ll also be allowed flavored gelatin and ice pops — but avoid eating anything with purple, blue, orange, or red dyes, as they can discolor the intestinal lining.

Bowel prep liquids: The most uncomfortable part of your prep is drinking a liquid that causes diarrhea to clear out your bowels. You’ll do this the afternoon or evening before the procedure, depending on the colonoscopy time and your doctor’s instructions.

Medicines: Ask your doctor if you should stop taking any medicines or supplements before the colonoscopy, and how far in advance to do so.

Tips for How to Prepare for a Colonoscopy

  • Review the instructions ahead of schedule so you know what to expect.
  • During preparation, plan to stay in a comfortable place, like your home. Make sure you aren’t responsible for driving people or caring for kids or parents, as you’ll be spending a lot of time in the bathroom.
  • Find ways to make the bowel prep liquid more palatable. Many people find that drinking it cold is easier than drinking it warm. You can add powdered drink mix (that doesn’t contain purple, red, orange, or blue dyes). You can pinch your nose closed when drinking it or place the straw farther back in your mouth so less of the liquid touches your tongue. Follow some of the sips of bowel prep liquid with something clear and better tasting, or cleanse your mouth with a hard candy or a lemon slice.
  • Stock up on medicated wipes and even diaper cream. The latter can help protect your anus before the diarrhea even starts. The moist wipes are more soothing than toilet paper for cleaning.
  • Bring someone who can drive you home after the procedure. You will not be able to drive home yourself.

What to Expect During Your Appointment

Before the procedure, you’ll receive general anesthesia through an IV in your arm to put you to sleep.

During the procedure, the doctor will insert a scope into your rectum. The scope has a camera that shows the doctor the inside of your colon. Using fluid and air, the doctor will move the scope through the colon to look for any abnormalities.

After the procedure, you’ll be monitored as you come out of the anesthesia and then discharged. You may have some cramping or bloating after the colonoscopy. Your doctor will give instructions for what you can eat at this point, usually starting with light foods. You should be able to resume normal activities in about 24 hours.

While colonoscopy preparation isn’t fun, it ensures that your colorectal area is adequately cleared so the doctor has good visibility. Talk to your doctor about when you may need a colonoscopy for screening purposes, especially if you have a family history of colon cancer or polyps or other risk factors. Typically, it is recommended that you begin regular screening at age 45. To schedule a colon cancer screening at the UPMC Digestive Health and Endoscopy Center, call 1-800-533-8762.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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