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Sputum Cytology

How It Is Done

Home or office sample

Three sputum samples are usually collected over 3 days. Your doctor will give you a container to collect the sputum. This container may have a small amount of liquid (called fixative) in it. The fixative helps preserve the sample. Do not drink this liquid.

For best results, collect the sample in the morning right after waking up. Follow these steps:

  • If you wear dentures, remove them before collecting the sample.
  • Rinse your mouth with water.
  • Take about four deep breaths followed by a few short coughs, then inhale deeply and cough forcefully into the container. Sputum is not the same as saliva, so make sure to get a sample of mucus from deep in your airway. Collecting the sample in the morning, when you first wake up, is generally best.
  • If you have trouble obtaining a good sample, try taking a hot shower first to help loosen the mucus in your airway.

Carefully follow your doctor's instructions about where to deliver the sample. You may be instructed to take the sample to the doctor's office or to a laboratory. Deliver the sample soon after you obtain it. You may be instructed to refrigerate the sample if you are not able to deliver it immediately.

Bronchoscopy sample

During bronchoscopy, a thin, lighted instrument (bronchoscope) is inserted through the nose or mouth into the throat and then into the airways leading to the lungs. To learn more about how the procedure is done, see the topic Bronchoscopy.

How It Feels

Home or office sample

If you have discomfort when taking a deep breath or coughing, getting a sputum sample may be uncomfortable.

Bronchoscopy sample

You may be able to feel pressure in your airway as the bronchoscope is moved from place to place. You may gag or cough. If you have general anesthesia, you will feel nothing during the procedure. To learn more about how the procedure feels, see the topic Bronchoscopy.

Risks

Home or office sample

There is no risk linked with collecting a sputum sample at home or at your doctor's office.

Bronchoscopy sample

Bronchoscopy is generally a safe procedure. Although complications are rare, you should discuss the risks in your particular case with your doctor. Complications that may occur include:

  • Spasms of the bronchial tubes. These can impair breathing.
  • Irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias).
  • Infection, such as pneumonia. These usually can be treated with antibiotics.

Results

Sputum cytology examines a sample of sputum (mucus) under a microscope to determine whether abnormal cells are present. It may take several days to receive results from a sputum cytology.

Sputum cytology
Normal:

Normal lung cells are present in the sputum sample.

Abnormal:

Abnormal cells are present in the sputum sample. Abnormal cells may mean lung conditions such as pneumonia, inflammation, the buildup of asbestos fibers in the lungs (asbestosis), or lung cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 01, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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