What Is a Bronchoscopy?

Medically Reviewed

Bronchoscopy is an examination that allows your doctor to view the airways of your lungs and take samples of mucus or tissue from them. For the procedure, a thin, tube-like instrument called a bronchoscope is inserted through your nose or mouth and down into the air passages of your lungs.

The tube has a mini-camera at its tip that transmits pictures back to a video screen. The instrument also has a passageway that lets the doctor remove mucus and cell samples from the lining of the lung and collect a small sample of tissue with a miniature cutting device.

Your doctor may ask you to have a bronchoscopy for one of the following reasons:

  • To follow up on an abnormal chest X-ray
  • To find the cause of certain infections, such as tuberculosis, AIDS-related pneumonias, or pneumonia following organ transplantation
  • To investigate and remove a blockage in the airways
  • To find out the cause of bleeding in the lung
  • To determine the cause of a chronic cough

What are the risks of bronchoscopy?

Bronchoscopy is a safe test, and serious complications are rare. Minor complications that can occur include discomfort while the bronchoscope is being passed through your nose, throat, and air passages, and a tickling feeling that may cause you to cough.

To reduce this discomfort, the doctor will spray a local anesthetic into your nose or throat to numb the area. Sedatives given before and during the procedure also help reduce any discomfort.

Although bronchoscopy is safe, in rare cases the airways can be injured by the bronchoscope (especially if the lung is already very inflamed or diseased) or a lung puncture can occur, causing an air leak around the lung, which can lead to a collapsed lung (called a pneumothorax).

Another complication is bleeding after a biopsy. Usually it is minor and will stop without treatment, but if needed, medication can be given through the instrument to stop the bleeding.

How do I prepare for a bronchoscopy?

Your stomach needs to be empty before the bronchoscopy to lessen certain risks, such as vomiting during the procedure. You will be told not to eat or drink anything (not even water) for six hours before your appointment.

If you are taking any type of medication, ask your doctor whether you need to stop taking it beforehand. (If your doctor says it’s OK to take your regular medications, you may drink a little water to take them.) If you have diabetes, your doctor may need to adjust your medication dose before and after the procedure.

Before the bronchoscopy begins, you will be given a small amount of sedative intravenously in your hand or arm. As noted previously, you will receive a local anesthetic for your nose and/or throat to help prevent coughing and gagging.

If it is needed, you may receive additional sedation through the needle in your vein. You will also be connected to a heart and blood pressure monitor to check your vital signs during the procedure.

What happens during the procedure?

You will probably be lying down during the bronchoscopy. The doctor will slowly put the bronchoscope through your nose and throat, between your vocal cords, into your windpipe, and then down into your lungs.

Any urge to cough or feelings of discomfort should be temporary. Your doctor will stop and let you catch your breath before continuing. Take slow, shallow breaths through your mouth and do not talk. (This will help prevent a sore throat.) If needed, you will receive medication through the instrument to help relieve coughing.

The procedure can take from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how long it takes for the medicine to take effect and what procedures the doctor needs to perform.

What is the recovery time?

Recovery times vary from person to person. You will be observed until you are alert enough to leave. It is recommended that you bring someone along to drive you home.

You must wait 30 minutes to an hour before drinking anything, until the numbness wears off. It is unlikely that you will have any problems after the procedure.

However, if you feel chest pain or increased shortness of breath, develop a fever, or cough up large amounts of blood once you leave the hospital, call your doctor right away. It is normal to cough up a small amount of blood for one or two days after the procedure.

When do I get the results?

Your doctor can tell you right away how your airways look. You may get laboratory results within one to four days, but other results can take longer, depending on what was performed during the bronchoscopy.