Tips for preparing for a colonoscopy

No one likes to have a colonoscopy, but it is the best way to detect and prevent colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, many people avoid this procedure for fear of what it may entail or what they may have to go through in the process. Although it is not pleasant, it can be life-saving.

Colon and rectal cancer (collectively known as colorectal cancer) are the third most common cancer in men and women and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S., says Harvard Health .

In order to perform a colonoscopy, the colon must be empty and clean, which requires a bit of prep work. We will discuss some tips for preparing for a colonoscopy, including diet and medications, as well as what to expect before, during, and afterward. Let's see..

What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is an exam performed to detect colon cancer while it is still treatable or before it has spread to other parts of the body, explains Harvard Health Publishing. You can also detect and remove polyps (small growths) or other abnormalities that could otherwise potentially develop into colon cancer.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the procedure is done with a long, flexible tube (colonoscope) inserted into the rectum. It is equipped with a tiny camera that allows the doctor to examine the inside of the colon.

The source further explains that colonoscopies are used to get to the bottom of bowel problems such as abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, constipation, diarrhea or other problems. They are also used to check for cancer and look for polyps.

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Your doctor is the best source of information when it comes to what you need to do to prepare for a colonoscopy. You will be given step-by-step instructions, but there are some products that can be useful before and after the procedure.

WebMD recommends having a few essential items on hand, such as laxatives recommended by your doctor, wet or medicated wipes and diaper cream.

Depending on the medical facility where the procedure is performed, the bowel may be emptied in different ways. Some clinics used a bowel cleansing liquid, while others rely on diet alone. So these are the two main strategies.

Eat low-fiber and soft foods

Not surprisingly, diet plays a big role in the days leading up to a colonoscopy. You can speed up the cleansing process by eating light about 3 to 4 days beforehand and limiting yourself to low-fiber, easily digested foods that can be quickly eliminated by the body.

WebMD recommends white bread, pasta, rice, well-cooked vegetables (without skins), fruit (without skins or seeds), lean meat, chicken or fish, and eggs.

Foods you should avoid

On the other hand, avoid hard-to-digest foods such as seeds, nuts, popcorn, fatty foods, tough meats, whole grains, raw vegetables, fruits with seeds and skins, corn, broccoli, cabbage, beans or peas.

Ask About Medications

Give the doctor a list of all medications you are currently taking at least a week before the exam, advises the Mayo Clinic. This is especially true for people taking aspirin or other blood-thinning medications. You may need to adjust your dose or stop taking it temporarily.

According to WebMD, you will probably also need to stop taking vitamins and other supplements in the short term.

The day before..

Fasting begins the day before colonoscopy, which imposes strict dietary restrictions. You can't eat solid foods and only consume clear liquids, WebMD explains.

You should drink plenty of water or clear liquids such as sports drinks, clear juice (apple or white grape) and clear broth. Coffee and tea are allowed, but without cream. WebMD says gelatin and ice lollipops are also okay, but without color. The dye can discolor the surface of the colon and make it difficult to see during the procedure. You should also avoid alcohol and colored beverages such as milk and orange juice.

Stop eating and drinking completely, not even liquids, two to four hours before the procedure. Your doctor will give you specific instructions.

The night before..

Most of the preparatory work takes place the night before the colonoscopy. Depending on the doctor, the exact preparation varies based on personal preference, timing of the procedure and any previous experience, Harvard Health explains.

You will likely be advised to take some strong laxatives to help clean out the digestive tract, WebMD says. This is a method called split dosing. "You will drink two liters of liquid laxative in the evening. Then get up about 6 hours before your appointment to drink another two liters," the source writes.

Here are some tips from WebMD on how to make drinking the solution more tolerable:

  • Mix it with something tasty (z. B. Sports drink or powdered drink)
  • Keep it cold
  • Drink with a straw and place the straw behind your tongue
  • Eat or drink something tasty afterwards
  • Suck on a slice of lemon or candy

When the laxative starts to work, it will likely cause diarrhea, along with cramping and bloating. If you have hemorrhoids, they will likely be irritated by the procedure. You may experience nausea and even vomit. Take a short break if this happens.

To make the procedure a little easier, stay in the bathroom and bring a book with you. Apply diaper cream before diarrhea begins and use wet or medicated wipes to clean up. If the laxatives work properly, your stool will end up looking like urine or clear water. This means the procedure is complete.

What to expect during the procedure

The preparation is the worst part, as the procedure itself takes only 30 to 60 minutes to complete. You will be sedated and wear a hospital gown. Sedation can be given either in tablet form or intravenously. This is only to minimize possible discomfort.

Insert the colonoscope into the rectum in a lateral position with the knees drawn up. The device covers the entire length of the colon and includes a light and a tube that pumps air or carbon dioxide into the colon. "The air or carbon dioxide inflates the colon, allowing a better view of the colon lining," writes the Mayo Clinic.

You may have abdominal cramps or feel an urge to have a bowel movement when the tube is removed.

The colonoscope also contains a tiny video camera on the tip that sends images to an external screen so the doctor can examine the inside of the colon. "The doctor may also insert instruments through the canal to take tissue samples (biopsies) or remove polyps or other areas of abnormal tissue."

What to expect afterward

Although the procedure is not serious and patients go home the same day, it takes about an hour for them to recover from the sedative and they need to be taken home by someone. Please arrange a ride home before the exam. Do not drive yourself.

If a polyp is found during the exam, a temporary special diet may be needed, Mayo Clinic explains.

You will probably feel a little bloated afterwards. Mayo Clinic suggests going for a walk to ease these aches and pains. You may also notice a small amount of blood during your first bowel movement afterward. This is usually not a concern unless it persists or abdominal pain, fever or blood clots occur. "While this is unlikely, it may occur immediately or in the first few days after the procedure, or may even be delayed by up to one to two weeks," the source writes.