Many signs can tip you off to the fact that you are becoming an old person. Your neighbors suddenly seeming loud and obnoxious instead of like the hosts of terrific parties, for example. You develop a sudden preference for footwear that is “comfortable.” You realize you have no idea who some of the highest-paid celebrities on the planet are. Also: Colonoscopies.
Normally the suggestion you allow someone to jam a camera up your butt would end with either a swipe left or a discussion of kinks, but every one of us will eventually hit the age when our doctor begins strongly suggesting we not only allow it, but actively pursue it. The magic age used to be 50, but recently, the medical community has shifted that down to 45, as more younger folks are getting diagnosed with colon cancer.
The good news? Well, there’s a lot of it, actually. A colonoscopy is by far the most accurate way to test for colon cancer—flagging upwards of 95 percent of all colorectal cancers. And that’s great, because colorectal cancers are the third most common cancer in the United States, and also highly preventable and almost always curable if caught early. In other words, colonoscopies are no one’s idea of a good time, but they can save your life. And after getting one you won’t need another for 10 years, unless your doctor advises otherwise.
But if getting a colonoscopy is good and necessary, prepping for one is not exactly fun.
Prepping for a colonoscopy is the worst part
Colonoscopies are performed while you’re sedated, of course, so you actually never get to truly appreciate the humiliation and discomfort of having a team of people stand around you while a flexible camera is, to use a medical term, poked up your rear. That means the real horror of a colonoscopy is the prep. Your doctor needs your colon to be squeaky clean so they can get a good look, and that means two things: A clear liquid diet, and some extremely effective laxatives. How effective? Let’s put it this way: Your doctor will likely advise you, in a very serious tone, to plan not to leave your house after taking it.
Typically you’ll be advised to do the clear liquid diet the entire day before your procedure, and the laxatives are split into two doses—one the day before, which isn’t so bad, and then one about six hours before the colonoscopy. This second dose is when your body will betray you and you will become intimately familiar with your toilet.
The prep is so legendarily unpleasant, it’s the main reason many people avoid colonoscopies (the risks of injury during the actual procedure being around .04—.08 percent), despite the clear benefits of getting them. But there are some ways to make your colonoscopy prep a bit more pleasant—or at least a little less unpleasant.
The timing of your procedure will have a huge impact on when your prep begins, so think about it a bit. Generally speaking, the second dose of laxative has to be taken about six hours before the procedure. That means if you schedule the colonoscopy for the morning in the hopes of getting it over with, you’ll have to wake up in the middle of the night to take your dose—and then spend the wee hours of the day in the bathroom. That might be worth it if you want to have most of the day free, but scheduling the procedure in the afternoon means you can get a decent night’s sleep.
Skip the fiber
Most doctors will instruct you to start your prep the day before your procedure, but it’s a good idea to start adjusting your diet a few days earlier. Cut back on fiber—avoid beans and nuts, most vegetables, and anything else that has a lot of fiber. Fiber is great for a healthy colon but it, er, “sticks” pretty well so cutting back on it will make the whole process of cleaning out your disgusting internal organs a little bit easier.
Vary your liquids
Many people assume a “clear liquid” diet means literally liquids with no color to them, but “clear” actually means there’s no pulp or anything else floating around in there. So coffee and tea are fine (usually you can even add sugar unless you doctor recommends against it), and broth is too, as are most gelatins (avoid red, purple, or orange dyes to be safe, as these can complicate the visuals for your doctor) and frozen ices. Stock up on a variety so you don’t have to drink only one thing for 24 hours. (On a side note, drink as much as you like, because being hydrated will also make your procedure go more smoothly.)
Manage the laxatives
The laxative situation in colonoscopy prep has gotten much better in recent years. They used to send you home with what seemed like an oil drum full of terrible-tasting stuff, but these days, there is far less to drink. Put it in the fridge, as drinking it cold is going to be a lot more pleasant. Add some flavor to it if you want/need to (Crystal Light is often suggested), and drink it using a straw to avoid as much of the taste as possible. Having a soft drink or a hard candy on hand to cut the aftertaste can be helpful.
Finally, it’s not a speed competition. The key is to drink the stuff at the appropriate time, but you don’t have to do it like you’re chugging a bottle of cheap tequila on Cinco de Mayo while people chant your name. Take your time.
Make yourself comfortable
Once you’ve taken your second dose of the laxative, you will soon feel the power of modern chemistry gurgling through your body. You will be in your bathroom a lot at this point, so prepare yourself and the pooping chamber:
- Wear comfortable clothes, because they’re going to be going off and on for the next few hours. Also, wear something you won’t weep over just in case you don’t make it to the toilet in time.
- Stock the bathroom with entertainment and supplies. A tablet to watch Netflix, some books and music—in other words, be prepared to spend significant time in there. Transform your bathroom into a candle-lit, music-filled pooping oasis.
- Take care of your tush. Buy flushable wipes and baby rash ointment, because all that wiping can be quite irritating.
Prepping for a colonoscopy is never going to be exactly pleasant, but you can minimize the unpleasantness by planning ahead and taking care of yourself. And maybe it will inspire you to leave your bathroom in permanent “pooping oasis” status.
This post was updated after publication to correct the stats on the risks of injury during a colonoscopy.