How to make your colonoscopy prep more effective and less unpleasant

For your colonoscopy prep to be smooth and successful, you need to know exactly what to expect.
For your colonoscopy prep to be smooth and successful, you need to know exactly what to expect. (Getty Images)

Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the U.S. and the second leading cancer death cause worldwide. But there’s good news: It’s also one of the most preventable cancers. That’s thanks in part to colonoscopies, which is a procedure where doctors use a probe to look into your large intestines. A colonoscopy is considered the best way to screen for colon cancer because it allows doctors to remove polyps — small growths in the colon — before they potentially turn cancerous. It can also help doctors diagnose colon cancer as well as other conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults 45 to 75 years old get colorectal cancer screenings. Most people need one every 10 years, but you may need to get one earlier if you have a higher risk for colon cancer. For instance, if you have a chronic bowel condition, a family history of colon polyps or a family history of colon cancer, you may need your first screening colonoscopy earlier than 45 years old, Dr. Heather Sharkey, assistant clinical professor at the University of New England, tells Yahoo Life. Depending on the result, including if there are polyps found, then the next colonoscopy would be done in five years or less, she adds.

A colonoscopy rarely causes any pain, Dr. Lance Uradomo, an interventional gastroenterologist at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Life. "It's typically a painless exam and usually takes less than 30 minutes," he adds.

However, the prep for a colonoscopy is another story. You may need to drink a lot of fluids, spend quite a bit of time in the bathroom and temporarily change your diet. Otherwise, your doctors won't see your colon properly and you may need to prep all over again. And no one wants that.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to make your prep more effective and less unpleasant. Here's what the experts recommend for having a better, easier colonoscopy prep.

Traditionally, colonoscopy prep involves drinking a large amount of liquids (an oral laxative formula) to help you clean out your colon. Now, there are other options that help you achieve the same effect such as low-volume preps and tablets. And it may also be possible to take your prep drink over two days instead of all at once. Ask your care team about options so you can get the best one for you.

If you had a poor experience with any of the bowel prep medications in the past, let your care team know. They may be able to recommend something else.

You should also let them know if you have constipation. "If you have uncontrolled constipation, it can help to discuss this in advance with your doctor," Dr. Rachel Schiesser, a gastroenterologist with Houston Methodist Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "Going into bowel prep with constipation can lead to inadequate emptying, as well as symptoms such as cramping, bloating and nausea," she says.

For your prep to be smooth and successful, you need to know exactly what to expect. About a week or two before your appointment, read through the instructions so you know what to do ahead of time, and ask your care team questions if you’re unsure about anything.

Clear your schedule on your prep day (the day before your colonoscopy) and make arrangements so you can stay home, close to a comfortable bathroom. You may also want to have a book or a movie on a device to keep you company during that time.

"I recommend going over your instructions about a week before your procedure. Stock up on clear liquids which you will need the day before your colonoscopy such as broth, coffee, tea and Jell-O,” Dr Aditi Stanton, a physician with Gastro Health, tells Yahoo Life.

Your care team will give you instructions on what to eat — and not to eat — and sticking to them is key. "Following the dietary recommendations is very important in making sure that you don't have undigested food in your colon that can make visualization difficult," Dr. Rabia de Latour, director of endoscopy Bellevue Hospital Center and assistant professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.

You'll need to alter your diet a few days ahead of your colonoscopy. Usually, that means eating foods low in fiber for two to three days — such as pasta, white rice, potatoes, turkey, eggs and more — and temporarily staying away from beans, prunes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds. You’ll also be consuming a clear liquid diet on the day before your procedure. So stock up on clear soups, broths and teas.

On the day before your colonoscopy, you mostly will be on a liquid diet. Although you can't eat solid foods, you can drink your calories and have as many drinks as you want.

Drinking enough will also keep you hydrated while your bowels empty. You can have water, clear sodas, clear juice and broths. You can also have Jell-O and ice pops. But avoid anything with colors like red, blue or purple that could stain the fluid in your colon and interfere with the procedure the next day.

"Really focus on hydration," says Schiesser. "Being well hydrated before you start the bowel cleanse will help you feel better, lower dehydration risk, make IV placement easier and help you have a better cleanse," she adds.

If you are doing the traditional prep with a lot of liquid, you can get a bit creative to help it go down:

• Chill the liquid in the refrigerator and use a straw, which can help make it easier to drink. But don't rush the drink to avoid nausea and vomiting.

• Mix it with some lemon-lime Gatorade or clear flavor of Crystal Light to make it taste better. "If you're mixing the prep with a liquid, then use a flavor you like but don't love because you will be drinking so much of it, you may not want to have it again for a long while," says Sharkey.

• Drink a permitted beverage — like tea (without dairy), soda or juice — you like after each swig to wipe the taste away. Having ginger chews or bubble gum between drinks may also help.

After you drink the prep, expect to spend lots of time going to the bathroom. Wiping with toilet paper after frequent bathroom trips can become irritating so using wet wipes instead can help. Just don't flush them. Discard in the wastebasket, because, despite the name, they can clog your pipes.

Also, wear loose-fitting comfortable clothes and stay close to the bathroom because the urge to go can come suddenly.

"Get a good book or download something to binge-watch on your phone because you'll be camping in the toilet ‘doing your homework,’" says Sharkey. "And have a sense of humor. This will be behind you soon."