- Bronchoscopy is a procedure used to look inside the airways of the lungs.
- The bronchoscope is a thin tube with a light and mini-camera at the end. It is flexibe and can be guided around the different branches of the airways.
- The bronchoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth, down the throat, and into the trachea and bronchi of the lungs.
- Bronchoscopy is usually performed to find out the cause of a respiratory condition that might be causing breathing trouble or a chronic cough. It might also be performed to follow up abnormal findings first seen on a chest X-ray or chest CT scan. It may be used to obtain a sample of lung fluid or tissue for further testing.
- Bronchoscopy may also be used to treat a respiratory problem. It might be performed to remove something stuck in the airway, to place medicine in the lung, or to insert a stent (small tube) to hold the airway open. These procedures are usually performed with a flexible bronchoscope.
- Bronchoscopy is done in a special clinic or hospital. Your doctor will give you medicine to numb your nose and throat and make you sleepy and relaxed. The bronchoscopy procedure usually takes about 30 minutes. However, 4 hours may be required for preparation and recovery.
- Bronchoscopy is a safe procedure, but there are risks, including a drop in your oxygen level during the procedure, minor bleeding, or developing a fever or pneumonia. Pneumothorax (collapsed lung) is a more serious risk for which each patient is closely monitored.
- For a few days after the procedure, you may be hoarse and have a sore throat. Call your doctor right away if you have chest pain, trouble breathing, or cough up more than a few tablespoons of blood.
- If there's a lot of bleeding in the lungs or a large object stuck in the throat, the doctor may use a different type of bronchoscope with a rigid tube. A rigid bronchoscopy is usually done in a hospital operating room while you're under general anesthesia. Anesthesia is used so you will sleep through the procedure and not feel any pain.
What does bronchoscopy show?
Bronchoscopy may show a tumor, signs of an infection, excess mucus in the airways, the site of bleeding, or something blocking your airway.
Your doctor will use the procedure results to decide how to treat any lung problems that were found. Other tests may be needed.
Who needs bronchoscopy?
The most common reason why your doctor may decide to do a bronchoscopy is if you have an abnormal chest X-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan. These tests may show a tumor, a collapsed lung, or signs of an infection. Other reasons for bronchoscopy include if you're coughing up blood or if you have a cough that has lasted more than a few weeks.
Bronchoscopy also can be used to check for swelling in the upper airways and vocal cords of people who were burned around the throat area or inhaled smoke from a fire.
In children, the procedure is most often used to remove something blocking an airway. In some cases, it's used to find out what's causing a cough that has lasted for at least a few weeks.
What to expect before bronchoscopy
Your doctor will do the bronchoscopy in a special clinic or in the hospital. To prepare for the procedure, tell your doctor:
- What medicines you're taking, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
- About any previous bleeding problems.
- About any allergies to medicines or latex.
Arrange for someone to drive you home from the clinic or hospital. The medicine you'll receive before the procedure will make you sleepy.
Avoid eating or drinking for 4 to 8 hours before the procedure. Your doctor will let you know the right amount of time.
What to expect during bronchoscopy
Your doctor will do the procedure in an exam room at a special clinic or in the hospital. The bronchoscopy itself usually lasts about 30 minutes. But the entire procedure, including preparation and recovery time, takes about 4 hours.
Your doctor will give you medicine through an intravenous (IV) line in your bloodstream or by mouth to make you sleepy and relaxed.
Your doctor also will squirt or spray a liquid medicine into your nose and throat to make them numb. This helps prevent coughing and gagging when the bronchoscope (long, thin tube) is inserted.
Then, your doctor will insert the bronchoscope through your nose or mouth and into your airways. As the tube enters your mouth, you may gag a little. Once it enters your throat, that feeling will go away.
Your doctor will look at your vocal cords and airways through the bronchoscope (which has a light and a mini-camera at its tip).
During the procedure, your doctor may take a sample of lung fluid or tissue for further testing. A chest X-ray may be used to help find the exact area to take the sample.
You may feel short of breath during bronchoscopy, but enough air is getting to your lungs. Your doctor will check your oxygen level. If the level drops, you'll be given oxygen.
If there's a lot of bleeding in your lungs or a large object stuck in your throat, your doctor may use a bronchoscope with a rigid tube. The rigid tube, which is passed through the mouth, is wider. This allows your doctor to see inside it more easily, treat bleeding, and remove stuck objects.
A rigid bronchoscopy is usually done in a hospital operating room while you're under general anesthesia. Anesthesia is used so you will sleep through the procedure and not feel any pain.
After the procedure is done, your doctor will remove the bronchoscope.
What to expect after bronchoscopy
After bronchoscopy, you'll need to stay at the clinic or hospital for up to a few hours. If your doctor uses a bronchoscope with a rigid tube, there's a longer recovery time. While you're at the hospital or clinic:
- You may have a chest X-ray if your doctor took a sample of tissue from your lung. This test will check for a pneumothorax and bleeding. A pneumothorax is a condition in which air or gas collects in the space around the lungs. This can cause the lung(s) to collapse. The condition is easily treated.
- A health care provider will check your breathing and blood pressure.
- You can't eat or drink until the numbness in your throat wears off. This takes 1 to 2 hours.
After recovery, you'll need to have someone take you home. You'll be too sleepy to drive.
If samples of tissue or fluid were taken during the procedure, they'll be tested in a lab. Ask your doctor when you'll receive the lab results.
Recovery and recuperation
Ask your doctor when you can return to your normal activities, such as driving, working, and physical activity. For the first few days, you may have a sore throat, cough, and hoarseness. Call your doctor right away if you:
- Develop a fever
- Have chest pain
- Have trouble breathing
- Cough up more than a few tablespoons of blood
What are the risks of bronchoscopy?
Bronchoscopy is usually a safe procedure. However, there's small risk for problems. The risks include:
- A drop in your oxygen level during the procedure. The doctor will give you oxygen if this happens.
- A slight risk of minor bleeding and developing a fever or pneumonia.
A rare but more serious side effect is a pneumothorax. A pneumothorax is a condition in which air or gas collects in the space around the lungs. This can cause the lung(s) to collapse.
This condition is easily treated and may go away on its own. If it interferes with breathing, a tube may need to be placed in the space around the lungs to remove the air.
A chest X-ray may be done after bronchoscopy to check for problems.
Reference: The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute (NHLBI)
Last updated March 2020