What is a lung needle biopsy?

A lung needle biopsy is a procedure to obtain a very small sample of lung tissue. The tissue is then examined with a microscope. It’s used to diagnose an irregular area of tissue in your lungs. This technique is also called percutaneous needle aspiration.

Your doctor may perform a lung needle biopsy to investigate an abnormality found on a chest X-ray, CT scan, or other imaging test. The goal is to make an accurate diagnosis.

Your doctor can use this procedure to:

  • determine whether a lung mass is malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous)
  • stage a malignant lung tumor
  • monitor the progression of lung disease
  • identify the cause of inflammation in your lung
  • explain why fluid has collected in your lung
  • diagnose a lung infection

A lung needle biopsy may be performed on its own. It can also be done with other tests, such as:

  • A bronchoscopy. A scope is inserted into your throat through your mouth, and then into the airways in your lungs. This allows your doctor to view various parts of your lungs.
  • A mediastinoscopy. A special scope is inserted through an incision in your chest. Your doctor then collects lymph node tissue for testing.

Learn more about what causes a spot on the lung.

A specialist known as an interventional radiologist usually performs the biopsy with the aid of a CT or other type of scan.

Before the biopsy

Your radiologist indicates the exact spot where the needle should be placed by drawing on your skin with a marker.

You may have an intravenous line inserted into a vein in one of your arms or hands. This is used to deliver sedation medication to make you sleepy.

A technician or nurse helps you get into the correct position. They clean the skin over the biopsy site with an antiseptic. Then they inject you with an anesthetic to numb the area. This may sting.

During the biopsy

Your radiologist will generally use a biopsy needle that is several inches in length. The design of the needle — wider than those used for regular shots and hollow — is what allows them to obtain a tissue sample.

A tiny incision may be made in your skin to allow for easy insertion of the biopsy needle. The biopsy needle is inserted. How much it’s inserted depends on the location of abnormal lung tissue. Your radiologist then takes samples of the abnormal tissue. This may feel like pressure or even sharp pain.

You’ll be asked to remain still and avoid coughing during the biopsy. When your radiologist is ready to remove a tissue sample, you’ll need to hold your breath. Several samples may be required.

After the biopsy

Once the biopsy is done, the needle is removed. Pressure is applied to the insertion site to help control any bleeding. When the bleeding has stopped, the site is bandaged. Sometimes one or more stitches are required if an incision is made. A typical lung needle biopsy is usually completed in less than 60 minutes.

The tissue samples will be sent to a laboratory for testing.

Lung needle biopsies are usually safe. However, as with any procedure, there are risks. For a lung needle biopsy, these include:

  • bleeding
  • infection
  • coughing up blood
  • collapsed lung

Make sure you tell your doctor about any recent illness or if you’re pregnant or may be pregnant.

Tell your doctor about all medications you’re taking, both over the counter and prescription. Your doctor may ask you to stop taking certain drugs before the procedure. You may be told to avoid taking some medications for a period of time before your procedure, such as:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB)
  • aspirin (Bufferin)
  • some blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin)

Someone from the facility where you’ll have the biopsy will call you before the procedure to confirm the time and location. You may be told not to eat or drink for eight hours before the biopsy. For example, if your biopsy is scheduled for the morning, you may be told not to eat or drink after midnight the night before.

Immediately after the biopsy, the nurses and technicians will monitor you for signs of any complications.

You may be able to leave the facility shortly after your biopsy is complete. Before the procedure, ask if you’ll be sent home that day.

If you were sedated, it may take a day or so to recover from the medication. In this case, plan to have a friend or relative drive you home. They should also stay with you once you’re home until you’re fully awake.

Talk to your doctor about how long you should rest before returning to work or school. Also ask about any restrictions, like lifting or heavy exercise.

You may cough up a small amount of blood. If this concerns you, call your doctor.

You may need some pain medication to manage discomfort following the biopsy. Avoid aspirin and NSAIDs. They may increase your risk of bleeding. Take a nonaspirin pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) instead. Your doctor may also order a prescription pain reliever.

Call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms after your biopsy:

  • bleeding from the biopsy site
  • coughing up more than a small amount of blood
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • fever
  • redness or drainage at the biopsy site

Once the tissue samples are examined, a report will be sent to your doctor. Your doctor may receive the report quickly, or it may take a few days. Your doctor will contact you with the results.

Depending on the findings, your doctor may order additional tests. Once they determine a diagnosis, they may suggest a treatment plan or refer you to other specialists.


How soon can I return to normal activities, like exercise, following a biopsy?

Anonymous patient


Your doctor will tell you when it’s safe to resume your regular schedule. You can usually return to your normal activities a full day after having a lung needle biopsy. If you’re uncertain, call your doctor.

Beth Holloway, RN, MEdAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.