A bronchoscopy is a medical test that lets doctors look into your lungs and airways. The procedure uses a thin tube with a small camera and light at the end. The doctor inserts it through your nose or mouth, down your throat, and into your lungs.
Most of the time, the tube is soft and flexible. The doctor might use a stiff tube if there’s bleeding in your lungs or an object in your airway.
Why You Might Need One
Doctors use bronchoscopy to find the cause of a lung problem. You might get it if you have:
- A cough that doesn’t go away (or you’re coughing up blood)
- Trouble breathing
- An infection or have had many infections
- Something abnormal on a chest X-ray or CT scan
A bronchoscopy can also help your doctor:
- Diagnose a lung problem
- Spot a lung infection
- Biopsy lung tissue
- Remove a blockage, like mucus or a tumor
- Put a stent (a small tube) into an airway to hold your airway open
- Treat a lung problem, such as bleeding or a collapsed lung
- Look at lymph nodes near your lungs
How to Prepare
Your doctor will give you instructions. But in general:
- Don’t eat or drink after midnight on the night before your bronchoscopy.
- If you take medication daily, ask your doctor if you should take it on the day of the procedure. If you take aspirin or blood thinners, your doctor may suggest not taking those the week before your bronchoscopy. They’ll probably tell you not to take ibuprofen for a week before the procedure.
- On the day of the procedure, you’ll be asked to remove your glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, dentures, or removable bridges.
- If you’re going to leave after the procedure, plan ahead and ask someone to take you home. You won’t be able to drive because the anesthesia can take many hours to wear off.
What to Expect During the Test
A bronchoscopy is done in a clinic or hospital setting. You’ll be in an exam room or operating room, and you’ll lie down on a table or bed. After that:
- A nurse or technician will connect you to sensors to track your blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels. They’ll spray your mouth with numbing medicine, and they may spray or put numbing gel in your nose, too. It won’t taste good, but the flavor will go away.
- They may give you medicine to make you sleepy through an IV, or a tube that goes into a vein. The IV will stay in place during the process in case you need more. You’ll be awake and able to answer questions, though you’ll feel sleepy and relaxed. Or, you might get medicine that puts you completely to sleep. This is called general anesthesia.
- Once you’re comfortable, the doctor will insert the bronchoscope into your mouth or nose, down through your vocal cords, and into your lungs. You may cough. It may be uncomfortable as the bronchoscope goes in, but it shouldn’t hurt.
- The camera sends pictures to a screen to help the doctor navigate during the procedure. If necessary, the doctor will use the bronchoscope to gather tissue or fluid samples.
- The procedure usually takes 30-45 minutes. Including prep and recovery time, it can take 4 hours. In rare cases where you’re asleep for a bronchoscopy, it can take an hour or more.
What to Expect After a Bronchoscopy
Because of the anesthesia, you may not remember much afterward.
The medical team will keep an eye on you for a few hours to make sure you don’t have any problems. Your mouth and throat may be numb, but that’ll wear off in a few hours.
In the next few days, you may have a sore throat or hoarseness. Cough drops can help. Call your doctor if you have:
Risks and Side Effects
A bronchoscopy is usually safe, but there are a few risks. If your oxygen levels drop during the procedure, the doctor may give you oxygen.
Afterward, you could get a fever or pneumonia. Or you might notice some bleeding. It’s rare, but a bronchoscopy can cause a collapsed lung. This is treatable, but you’ll have to stay in the hospital. Your doctor may order a chest X-ray after a bronchoscopy to check for any problems.
Ask the person taking you home to listen when your doctor gives results, in case you’re still drowsy. Your doctor may tell you when to start taking your medications again. They should tell you when to expect your test results. Or they may give you results right away. Your doctor will let you know when all of the results are ready.