Throat Swab Culture

Written by Michael Harkin | Published on August 7, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is a Throat Swab Culture?

A throat swab culture, or throat culture, is a test commonly used to diagnose bacterial infections in the throat. These infections can include strep throat, pneumonia, tonsillitis, whooping cough, and meningitis.

The purpose of a throat swab culture is to detect the presence of organisms in the throat that could cause infection. For instance, the presence of group A streptococcus bacteria in your throat is a key sign that you may have strep throat.

If you have a sore throat and your physician suspects that you may have strep throat or another bacterial infection, he or she may order a throat swab culture. The results of the test will help form a diagnosis and an effective treatment plan.

How Can I Prepare for a Throat Swab Culture?

Antiseptic mouthwash should be avoided before this test. You should also tell your doctor if you have been taking any antibiotics because this could affect the test results.

If your child is undergoing the examination, you should ask him or her to remain still and you may need to help gently restrain him or her.

How Is a Throat Swab Culture Performed?

Your physician will ask you to open your mouth and tilt your head back. If necessary, a tongue depressor may be used to allow the physician a better view of the back of your throat. He or she will then rub a sterile cotton swab across the back of your throat, your tonsils, and any other sore areas for a few seconds. The swab will collect a sample of the secretions being produced in the back of your throat. The test may cause momentary gagging because the back of the throat is a sensitive area, but it should not be painful.

The sample your doctor collects is taken to a laboratory, where it is put on a plate that allows any bacteria on it to grow. This process is called a culture. Chemical tests are conducted on the cultured sample in order to determine the presence and identity of any harmful bacteria. It usually takes a couple of days to culture the bacteria and obtain the results from this test.

There are no risks or complications associated with a throat swab culture.

What is the Diagnostic Purpose of a Throat Swab Culture?

Throat swab cultures are very effective diagnostic tools for identifying infections that affect the throat. For instance, they provide one of the best means of detecting the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria; a 2007 study showed that throat swabs increased the sensitivity of detection among people carrying these bacteria by 25.7 percent (Mertz, et al., 2007).

What Can I Expect After the Test?

If your throat swab culture is negative, this means that no infectious bacteria are present in your throat. If it is positive, the results can be used to determine which infection is present as well as the best course of treatment. In order to address a bacterial infection, your physician will likely prescribe an antibiotic, to effectively target the infection.

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