An esophageal culture is a laboratory test that checks tissue samples from the esophagus for signs of infection or cancer. Your esophagus is the long tube between your throat and stomach. It transports food, liquids, and saliva from your mouth to your digestive system.
For an esophageal culture, tissue from the esophagus is obtained through a procedure called esophagogastroduodenoscopy. This is more commonly referred to as an EGD or an upper endoscopy. Your doctor may order this test if they suspect you have an infection in your esophagus or if you’re not responding to treatment for an esophageal problem.
Endoscopies are generally performed on an outpatient basis using a mild sedative. During the procedure, your doctor will insert an instrument called an endoscope down your throat and into your esophagus to get tissue samples. Most people are able to return home within a few hours of the test and report little or no pain or discomfort.
The tissue samples are sent to a lab for analysis, and your doctor will call you with the results within a few days.
Your doctor may suggest an esophageal culture if they think that you may have an infection of the esophagus or if you have an existing infection that isn’t responding to treatment as it should.
In some cases, your doctor will also take a biopsy during your EGD. A biopsy checks for abnormal cell growth, such as cancer. Tissues for the biopsy can be taken using the same procedure as your throat culture.
The samples are sent to a lab and placed in a culture dish for a few days to see if any bacteria, fungi, or viruses grow. If nothing grows in the laboratory dish, you’re considered to have a normal result. If there’s evidence of infection, your doctor may need to order additional tests to help them determine the cause and a treatment plan.
If a biopsy is also taken, a pathologist will study the cells or tissues under a microscope to determine if they’re cancerous or precancerous. Precancerous cells are cells that have the potential to develop into cancer. A biopsy is the only way to identify cancer accurately.
To obtain a sample of your tissue, your doctor will perform an EGD. For this test, a small camera, or flexible endoscope, is inserted down your throat. The camera projects images onto a screen in the operating room, allowing your doctor to have a clear view of your esophagus.
This test doesn’t require too much preparation on your part. You should stop taking any blood thinners for several days before the test is done. Your doctor will also ask you to fast for six to 12 hours before your scheduled test time. The EGD is generally an outpatient procedure, meaning you can go home immediately following it.
In most cases, an intravenous (IV) line will be inserted into a vein in your arm. A sedative and a painkiller will be injected through the IV. A healthcare provider may also spray a local anesthetic into your mouth and throat to numb the area and prevent you from gagging during the procedure. A mouth guard will be inserted to protect your teeth and the endoscope. If you wear dentures, you’ll need to remove them beforehand.
You’ll lie on your left side, and your doctor will insert the endoscope through your mouth or nose, down your throat, and into your esophagus. Some air will also be inserted to make it easier for the doctor to see.
Your doctor will visually examine your esophagus and may also examine your stomach and upper duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. These should all appear smooth and of normal color. If there’s visible bleeding, ulcers, inflammation, or growths, your doctor will take biopsies of those areas. In some cases, your doctor will try to remove any suspicious tissues with the endoscope during the procedure.
The procedure generally lasts about five to 20 minutes.
There’s a slight chance of a perforation or bleeding during this test. As with any medical procedure, you may also have a reaction to the medications. These could result in:
- difficulty breathing
- excessive sweating
- spasms of the larynx
- low blood pressure
- a slow heartbeat
Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about how sedatives might affect you.
After the Procedure
Following the procedure, you’ll need to stay away from foods and beverages until your gag reflex returns. You’ll most likely feel no pain and will have no memory of the operation. You’ll be able to return home the same day.
Your throat may feel a little sore for a few days. You may also feel some minor bloating or the sensation of gas. This is because air was inserted during the procedure. However, most people feel little or no pain or discomfort after an endoscopy.
When to See Your Doctor
You should contact your doctor immediately if you develop any of the following after the test:
- black stools
- bloody vomit
- difficulty in swallowing
- a fever
These are symptoms of infection and internal bleeding.
If your doctor removed any suspicious tissue or precancerous cells during your procedure, they might ask you to schedule a follow-up endoscopy. This will ensure that all the cells were removed and that you don’t need any additional treatment.
Your doctor should call you to discuss your results in a few days. If an infection was uncovered, you might need additional tests or your doctor may prescribe medications to treat your condition.
If you had a biopsy and cancerous cells were discovered, your doctor will try to identify the specific type of cancer, its origins, and other factors. This information will help determine your treatment options.