Bronchoscopy is a procedure in which a cylindrical fiberoptic scope is inserted into the airways. This scope contains a viewing device that allows the visual examination of the lower airways.
During a bronchoscopy, a physician can visually examine the lower airways, including the larynx, trachea, bronchi, and bronchioles. The procedure is used to examine the mucosal surface of the airways for abnormalities that might be associated with a variety of lung diseases. Its use includes the visualization of airway obstructions such as a tumor, or the collection of specimens for the diagnosis of cancer originating in the bronchi of the lungs (bronchogenic cancer). It can also be used to collect specimens for culture to diagnose infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. The type of specimens collected can include sputum (composed of saliva and discharges from the respiratory passages), tissue samples from the bronchi or bronchioles, or cells collected from washing the lining of the bronchi or bronchioles. The instrument used in bronchoscopy, a bronchoscope, is a slender cylindrical instrument containing a light and an eyepiece. There are two types of bronchoscopes, a rigid tube that is sometimes referred to as an open-tube or ventilating bronchoscope, and a more flexible fiberoptic tube. This tube contains four smaller passages—two for light to pass through, one for seeing through and one that can accommodate medical instruments that may be used for biopsy or suctioning, or that medication can be passed through.
Bronchoscopy may be used for the following purposes:
- to diagnose cancer, tuberculosis, lung infection, or other lung disease
- to examine an inherited deformity of the lungs
- to remove a foreign body in the lungs, such as a mucus plug, tumor, or excessive secretions
- to remove tissue samples, also known as biopsy, to test for cancer cells, help with staging the advancement of the lung cancer, or to treat a tumor with laser therapy
- to allow examination of a suspected tumor, obstruction, secretion, bleeding, or foreign body in the airways
- to determine the cause of a persistent cough, wheezing, or a cough that includes blood in the sputum
- to evaluate the effectiveness of lung cancer treatments
Patients not breathing adequately on their own due to severe respiratory failure may require mechanical ventilation prior to bronchoscopy. It may not be appropriate to perform bronchoscopy on patients with an unstable heart condition. All patients must be constantly monitored while undergoing a bronchoscopy so that any abnormal reactions can be dealt with immediately.
There are two types of bronchoscopes, a rigid tube and a fiberoptic tube. Because of its flexibility, the fiberoptic tube is usually preferred. However, if the purpose of the procedure is to remove a foreign body caught in the wind-pipe or lungs of a child, the more rigid tube must be used because of its larger size. The patient will either lie face-up on his/her back or sit upright in a chair. Medication to decrease secretions, lessen anxiety, and relax the patient are often given prior to the procedure. While breathing through the nose, anesthesia is sprayed into the mouth or nose to numb it. It will take 1-2 minutes for the anesthesia to take effect. Once this happens, the bronchoscope will be put into the patient's mouth or nose and moved down into the throat. While the bronchoscope is moving down the throat, additional anesthesia is put into the bronchoscope to numb the lower parts of the airways. Using the eyepiece, the physician then observes the trachea and bronchi, and the mucosal lining of these passageways, looking for any abnormalities that may be present.
If the purpose of the bronchoscopy is to take tissue samples or biopsy, forceps or a bronchial brush are used
Another procedure using bronchoscopy is called fluorescence bronchoscopy. This can be used to detect pre-cancerous cells present in the airways. By using a fluorescent light in the bronchoscope, precancerous tissue will appear dark red, while healthy tissue will appear green. This technique can help detect lung cancer at an early stage, so that treatment can be started early.
Depending upon the purpose of the bronchoscopy, alternatives might include a computed tomography scan (CT) or no procedure at all. Bronchoscopy is often performed to investigate an abnormality that shows up on a chest x ray or CT scan. If the purpose is to obtain biopsy specimens, one option is to perform surgery, which carries greater risks. Another option is percutaneous (through the skin) biopsy guided by computed tomography.
The doctor should be informed of any allergies and all the medications that the patient is currently taking. The doctor may instruct the patient not to take medications like aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs, which interfere with clotting, for a period of time prior to the procedure. The patient needs to fast for 6 to 12 hours prior to the procedure and refrain from drinking any liquids the day of the procedure. The bronchoscopy takes about 45 to 60 minutes, with results usually available in one day. Prior to the bronchoscopy, several tests may be done, including a chest x ray and blood work. Sometimes a bronchoscopy is done under general anesthesia. Patients usually have an intravenous (IV) line in the arm. Most likely, the procedure will be done under local anesthesia, which is sprayed into the nose or mouth. This is necessary to decrease the gag reflex. A sedative may also be used to help the patient relax. It is important that the patient understands that at no time will the airway be blocked and that oxygen can be supplied through the bronchoscope. A signed consent form is necessary for this procedure.
After the bronchoscopy, the patient will be monitored for vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, while resting in bed. Sometimes patients have an abnormal reaction to anesthesia. All saliva should be spit into a basin so that it can be examined for the presence of blood. If a biopsy was taken, the patient should not cough or clear the throat as this might dislodge any blood clot that has formed and cause bleeding. No food or drink should be consumed for about two hours after the procedure or until the anesthesia wears off. Diet is gradually progressed from ice chips and clear liquids to the patient's regular diet. There will also be a temporary sore throat and hoarseness that may last for a few days.
Minor side effects arise from the bronchoscope causing abrasion of the lining of the airways. This results in some swelling and inflammation, as well as hoarseness caused from abrading the vocal cords. If this abrasion is more serious, it can lead to respiratory difficulty or bleeding of the airway lining. A more serious risk involved in having a bronchoscopy performed is the occurrence of a pneumothorax, due to puncturing of the lungs, which allows air to escape into the space between the lung and the chest wall. These risks are greater with the use of a rigid bronchoscope than with a fiberoptic bronchoscope. If a rigid tube is used, there is also a risk of chipped teeth.
Normal tracheal appearance consists of smooth muscle with C-shaped rings of cartilage at regular intervals. The trachea and the bronchi are lined with a mucous membrane.
Abnormal bronchoscopy findings may involve abnormalities of the bronchial wall such as inflammation,
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Fauci, Anthony S. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 14th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.
"Fluorescence Bronchoscopy Technology Used in Early Detection." Cancer Weekly Plus (Feb 3, 1997): 17.
American College of Chest Physicians. 3300 Dundee Rd., Northbrook, IL 60062. (800) 343-2227. <www.chestnet.org>.
Cindy L. Jones, Ph.D.
—A drug used to induce loss of sensation. It is used to lessen the pain of surgery and medical procedures.
—The network of tubular passages that carry air to the lungs and allow air to be expelled from the lungs.
—Small airways extending from the bronchi into the lobes of the lungs.
—Washing cells from the air sacs at the end of the bronchioles.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE DOCTOR
- Did you see any abnormalities?
- How soon will you know the results of the biopsy (if one was done)?
- When can I resume any medications that were stopped?
- What future care will I need?
- For what type of problems should I call you?