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What Is a Flexible Bronchoscopy?

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  • Written By: A.E. Freeman
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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A flexible bronchoscopy is a type of medical test done to examine a person's lungs. In some cases, the procedure can be performed to treat a person or to take a sample from the lungs. Unlike a rigid bronchoscopy, the patient is usually awake during a flexible bronchoscopy. The procedure is performed using a thin tube called a bronchoscope with a small camera on one end.

Although the patient is usually awake during a flexible bronchoscopy, she is usually given a local anesthetic to numb the airway before the scope is inserted. The doctor may spray the mouth and nose with anesthetic, which can feel uncomfortable at first and cause coughing. In some cases, a patient may also receive a drug intravenously to help her calm down.

After the patient's airway is numb, the doctor will insert the bronchoscope. The flexible bronchoscope can be threaded through the mouth or nose, down into the airway and lungs. During the flexible bronchoscopy, the doctor may wash out the lungs with saline solution.

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Washing the lungs helps the doctor collect samples of the lung cells or any fluids found in the lungs. If any object is blocking the airway, the bronchoscopy will remove the foreign object. A rigid bronchoscopy rather than a flexible one will be required if the object is on the large side or if there is excessive bleeding in the airway and lungs. While a flexible bronchoscopy can be done on an outpatient basis, rigid bronchoscopy requires general anesthesia and is done in a hospital.

A patient with a narrow airway may undergo a flexible bronchoscopy so that the doctor can place a stent in the trachea to dilate it. The procedure can also be done to drain an abscess or diagnose an infection such as tuberculosis. It can diagnose lung cancer as well.

During the procedure, a patient may feel that he has trouble breathing with the scope in his airway. Although it feels unpleasant, there is no risk of suffocating during a bronchoscopy. A patient won't be able to cough for a few hours after the test and shouldn't eat until he can cough again. Usually, the throat is scratchy for several days following the procedure.

Most patients undergo a flexible bronchoscopy with little or no problems. In some instances, a patient may get an infection or experience bleeding after it is done. More severe problems include pneumonia or a collapsed lung, which should be treated immediately.

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