What Is an Esophageal Culture?
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.
What Is the Purpose of an Esophageal
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.
How Are Esophageal Cultures Obtained?
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
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.
What Are the Risks Associated with an
Esophageal Culture and Biopsy Procedure?
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.
What Can I Expect 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
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 Should I See My 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.
What Will Happen When I Get the Results?
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.