What is Sputum Cytology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2019
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Sputum cytology is an analysis of cells found in mucus produced by the lungs. A doctor may request this diagnostic test to rule out possible lung conditions or explore the cause of symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath. Sputum samples can be collected in multiple ways, and a lab may need several days to examine the sample and provide detailed results. Results may be positive or negative for abnormal cells, or the lab could return an ambiguous result, indicating problems with the sample.

One way to collect material for sputum cytology is to ask the patient to cough. If a patient has been coughing productively and bringing up mucus, he can cough into a container and this can be sent to the lab. Another technique is to have the patient inhale a saline mist to stimulate coughing. Finally, sputum can be collected during a bronchoscopy, where a camera is inserted into the airways to examine them. Tools attached to the camera can scoop up samples of mucus and tissues for examination.


If something is wrong inside the lungs, they may be shedding cells and the condition of these cells could provide information. They may be cancerous or show signs of infection or inflammation. Some reasons to request sputum cytology include suspicions of cancer, asbestosis, tuberculosis, or lung inflammation. A negative result does not necessarily mean a patient is healthy; it is possible that a problem exists and no abnormal cells were collected in a given sputum sample.

In the process of evaluating a patient for a suspected lung disease, a doctor may use bronchoscopy, x-ray, and other medical imaging techniques. Blood tests can check for abnormal levels of white blood cells and other unusual characteristics associated with disease. The doctor may also conduct a patient interview to check for risk factors like exposure to toxins, infectious agents, and other materials known to cause lung problems. Sputum cytology is one option among a library of diagnostic tests to collect information.

When a sputum cytology analysis returns positive results, the next step depends on what the lab identifies in the sample. If the patient has an infection, treating with antibiotics and other medications may be the best option. With cancerous cells, it may be necessary to collect a biopsy sample from the lung to learn more. A doctor may also sample neighboring lymph nodes to see if the cancer is spreading. In cases of inflammation, anti-inflammatory drugs may resolve the problem and help the patient breathe normally.


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