Bronchoscopy for lung cancer

A bronchoscopy is a test to look at the inside of the breathing tubes (airways) in your lungs. Your doctor can see any areas that look abnormal and take samples (biopsies) to test.

Your doctor puts a narrow, flexible tube called a bronchoscope down your windpipe (trachea) and into your airways. The tube has a light at the tip and an eye piece so they can see the lining of the airways.

Diagram showing a bronchoscopy

You normally have this as an outpatient or day case procedure in the endoscopy unit.

How you have it

Check your appointment letter to see how to prepare.

You sign a consent form before the test. This is a good time to make sure you ask the doctor any questions you have.

Take your usual medicines as normal unless your doctor tells you otherwise. If you take medicines to thin your blood, you need to stop them before your bronchoscopy. Your doctor tells you when to stop.

You have the test under local or general anaesthetic. 

Having a local anaesthetic means you should be able to eat and drink as normal beforehand. Your doctor sprays your throat to numb it.

You might also have medicine to make you drowsy (a sedative).

You need to stop eating a few hours before the test. You usually need to stop drinking fluids 2 hours beforehand. Your doctor or nurse will tell you when to stop eating and drinking. 

Having a bronchospcopy under a general anaesthetic means that the doctor can remove a larger sample of tissue (biopsy) or put a tube (stent) in place to keep your airway open.

Your doctor will explain why a general anaesthetic is neccessary in your case. 

Having the bronchoscopy

If you are having a general anaesthetic you will be asleep and won't be aware of any of the following. 

Your doctor puts the bronchoscope into your mouth and down your airway. This is uncomfortable but doesn't last long. You can breathe normally.

Your doctor then looks for anything abnormal and can take tissue samples (biopsies) to test. They can also take photographs of the inside of your airways. These are kept in your medical records.

Your nurse checks your oxygen levels and heart rate using a clip on your finger.

After your bronchoscopy

If you had a general anaesthetic you usually wake up in the recovery room or the endoscopy unit. You should be able to get changed into your own clothes once you feel less sleepy.

If you had a local anaesthetic your throat will still be numb for a while, so you won't be able to eat or drink anything for a few hours. Once this passes it will be safe to swallow. 

Going home

You can usually go home the same day.

Someone should collect you from the hospital if you have had a general anaesthetic or a sedative. Check with the team looking after you when it is safe to drive again. 

You need to take things easy for a day or so. You might have a sore throat for a couple of days.

Possible risks

A bronchoscopy is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems afterwards. Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a bronchoscopy outweigh these possible risks.

The possible risks include:

Bleeding

You might see a small amount of blood in your spit after the test. Let your doctor or nurse know if this doesn’t go away.

Damage to the teeth

There is a low risk of damage to the teeth if you have the rigid bronchoscope. Tell the doctor or nurse before you go home if you think this has happened.

Chest infection

See your GP straight away if your phlegm (sputum) changes colour, you start feeling more breathless or you feel as though you have a temperature.

Needing extra oxygen

You might need oxygen through a mask for some time after the bronchoscopy. If you normally have oxygen at home you might need to have more than usual for a little while.

A collapsed lung (pneumothorax)

Air or gas can collect in the space around the lung and make it collapse, but this is rare. Contact a doctor if you become short of breath or have chest pain. You have a tube put into the lung to remove the air.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks. Contact your doctor if you haven’t heard anything after this time.

Waiting for test results or for further tests can be very worrying. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can contact them for information if you need to. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For support and information, you can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, from Monday to Friday.

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