A biopsy is a test done to remove a tissue sample from the body so it can be examined. A lung biopsy is a test to take a small piece of a lung. This is done with a special biopsy needle or forceps (tweezer-like device). Or it’s done during surgery. The biopsy is done to look for lung disease, cancer, or another condition.
There are several types of lung biopsy:
Needle biopsy. A numbing medicine (local anesthetic) is put on the chest. A needle is put into the lung to take out a sample. A CT scan (a series of X-rays and a computer) or fluoroscopy (a type of X-ray movie) may be used to guide the biopsy needle into the right place. This type of biopsy is also called a closed, transthoracic, or through-the-skin (percutaneous) biopsy.
Transbronchial biopsy. This type of biopsy is done with a bronchoscope. This is a long, thin tube with a tiny camera. The bronchoscope is put down the throat and through the windpipe (trachea) down into the main airways of the lungs. Forceps (tweezer-like device) are used to remove very small pieces of lung.
Thoracoscopic biopsy. Medicine is used to put you to sleep (general anesthesia). Or local anesthetic is used. A flexible, lighted tube (endoscope) is put between the ribs, through the chest wall, and into the chest cavity. Biopsy tools are used through the endoscope to take out small pieces of lung tissue. This is also called a video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) biopsy. Treatments can also be done during this test. They may include removing a nodule or other tissue.
Open biopsy. This is done under general anesthesia. This method is used if the sample from the needle biopsy is too small to get a diagnosis. A cut (incision) in the skin is made to get to the lung. A piece of the lung is removed. Depending on the fast results of a biopsy, more surgery may be done during the test. This may include removing a wedge or a lobe of the lung. An open biopsy requires an overnight hospital stay.
A lung biopsy may be done to:
Check an abnormal spot on the lung seen on a chest X-ray or other imaging test
To diagnose lung infection or other lung disease
Look for the cause of too much fluid in the lung
Find out if a lung tumor is cancer (malignant) or not cancer (benign)
To see how far lung cancer has spread (staging)
Your healthcare provider may have other reasons to advise a lung biopsy.
The type of biopsy done will depend on several things. These may include your general health, the type of lung problem, and where the problem is in the lung.
All tests have some risks.
The risks of an open lung biopsy may include:
Blood loss or blood clots
Pain or discomfort
Problems from general anesthesia
Air in the space between the lung and the inner chest wall (pneumothorax)
Fluid in the space between the lung and the inner chest wall (pleural effusion)
The risks of a needle or transbronchial lung biopsy may include:
Air or fluid in the space between the lung covering (pleural space) and inner chest wall
Bleeding in the lung
Your risks may vary depending on your general health and other factors. Ask your healthcare provider which risks apply most to you. Talk with them about any concerns you have.
Your healthcare provider will explain the test to you. Ask any questions you have. You may be asked to sign a consent form that gives permission to do the test. Read the form carefully. Ask questions if anything is not clear.
Tell your healthcare provider if you:
Are pregnant or think you may be pregnant
Are allergic to contrast dye or iodine
Are sensitive to or allergic to any medicines, latex, tape, or anesthetic medicines (local and general)
Take any medicines, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal supplements
Have had a bleeding disorder
Take blood-thinning medicine (anticoagulant), aspirin, or other medicines that affect blood clotting
Make sure to:
Stop taking certain medicines before the test, if instructed by your healthcare provider
Follow any directions for not eating or drinking before the test
Plan to have someone drive you home from the hospital
Follow any other directions your healthcare provider gives you
You may have blood tests or other tests or exams before the test. Your healthcare provider will tell you more.
You may have your test as an outpatient. This means you go home the same day. Or it may be done as part of a longer stay in the hospital. The way the test is done may vary. It depends on your condition and your healthcare provider's methods. In most cases, a lung biopsy will start like this:
You will be asked to remove your clothes. If so, you will be given a hospital gown to wear. You may be asked to take off jewelry or other objects.
You will sit or lie down on a test table.
An IV (intravenous) line will be put into your arm or hand.
An X-ray or CT scan may be done. This it to find the exact biopsy site. The skin over this area will be marked.
The skin where the needle will be put in will be cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
A numbing medicine (local anesthetic) will be injected into the area.
You will need to hold still and not cough. You will be asked to hold your breath at certain times during the test.
A small cut (incision) will be made over the biopsy site. The healthcare provider will put the needle between your ribs and into your lung through this cut. You may feel discomfort or pressure when the needle goes into your lung.
One or more samples of lung tissue will be taken.
The biopsy needle will be removed. Firm pressure will be applied to the site until any bleeding has stopped.
The cut will be closed with stitches or adhesive strips, if needed. A bandage or dressing will be put on the area.
The lung samples will be sent to a lab.
You may have a chest X-ray taken right after the biopsy.
You will be awake during the test. You will be given medicine to help you relax (sedative).
You may be given oxygen through a nasal tube or facemask. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing will be watched during the test.
An X-ray or other imaging test may be done. This it to find the exact biopsy site. The skin over this area will be marked.
Numbing medicine will be sprayed into the back of your throat. This is to prevent gagging as the bronchoscope is passed down your throat. The spray may have a bitter taste to it. Once the tube passes down your throat, the gagging feeling will go away.
You won’t be able to talk or swallow saliva during the test. Saliva will be suctioned from your mouth as needed.
The healthcare provider will move the bronchoscope down your throat and into the airways. You may have some discomfort. Your airway will not be blocked. You can breathe around the bronchoscope. You will be given extra oxygen if needed.
Tissue samples will be taken through the bronchoscope using a needle, forceps, or a brush.
The healthcare provider will remove the bronchoscope.
You will be given general anesthesia. This is medicine that prevents pain and lets you sleep through the test.
A breathing tube will be put into your throat and hooked up to a breathing machine (ventilator). Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing will be watched during the test.
Hair in the area of surgery may be trimmed. The skin in the area will be cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
A soft, flexible tube (catheter) may be put into your bladder. This is to drain urine during the test.
A cut (incision) will be made on your chest between the ribs. The thoracoscope will be put through this cut. One or more other cuts may be made at other places on your chest. These are for the tools to be used during the test.
The area of the lung to have a biopsy will be found through the thoracoscope. One or more tissue samples will be taken from this area.
A sample may be frozen and checked right away. This is called a frozen section. Depending on the results, more surgery may be done on the lung at this time. For example, a larger section of lung or an entire lung lobe may be removed.
After the biopsy is done, one or more tubes may be put into your chest. These are to help remove air and fluid after surgery.
The skin cut will be closed with stitches or adhesive strips. A bandage or dressing will be put on the area.
A cut (incision) will be made on the front of your chest at the level of the lobe to be removed. The cut will go under your arm around to your back.
When the ribs can be seen, a special tool will be used to spread them apart. The lung will be checked.
A piece of tissue will be removed from the lung. A sample may be frozen and checked right away. This is called a frozen section. Depending on the results, more surgery may be done on the lung at this time. For example, a larger section of lung or an entire lung lobe may be removed.
One or more tubes may be put into your chest. These are to help remove air and fluid after surgery.
The skin incision will be closed with stitches (sutures) or staples. A bandage or dressing will be put on the area.
A thin tube (epidural catheter) may be put in your lower spine area. This is done to send pain medicine into your back. It may be done in the surgery room or in the recovery room.
After the test, you will spend some time in a recovery room. You may be sleepy and confused when you wake up from general anesthesia or sedation. Your healthcare team will watch your vital signs, such as your heart rate and breathing. You’ll be given pain medicine if you need it.
A chest X-ray may be done right after the biopsy. It may be repeated in a few hours. This is to make sure your lungs are OK. After a transbronchial lung biopsy, you may be told to gently cough up and spit your saliva into a basin. This is so a nurse can check your secretions for blood.
If your biopsy was done using a bronchoscope, you may have some throat discomfort. You won't be allowed to eat or drink until your gag reflex has returned. You may notice some throat soreness and pain with swallowing for a few days. This is normal. Using throat lozenges or gargling may help.
If you had an outpatient test, you will go home when your healthcare provider says it’s OK. Someone will need to drive you home.
The biopsy site may be sore for a few days. Follow all the instructions your healthcare provider gives you for wound care and bathing. You can take pain medicine as advised by your healthcare provider. Aspirin and certain other pain medicines may increase bleeding. Take only the medicines your healthcare provider advises.
At home, you can go back to your normal diet and activities if instructed by your healthcare provider. You may need to not do strenuous physical activity for a few days.
Call your healthcare provider if you have any of the below:
Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider
Feeling short of breath
Pain with breathing
Coughing up a lot of blood
Redness or swelling of the biopsy site or incisions
Blood or other fluid leaking from the biopsy site or cuts
Your healthcare provider may give you other directions after the test.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure, make sure you know:
The name of the test or procedure
The reason you are having the test or procedure
What results to expect and what they mean
The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
What the possible side effects or complications are
When and where you are to have the test or procedure
Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
When and how you will get the results
Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure