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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 example, the presence of group A streptococcus bacteria (Streptococcus pyogenes) in your throat is a key sign that you may have strep throat.
Streptococcal bacteria are very contagious. They can be spread through airborne droplets. An infected person can easily pass the bacteria on if they cough, sneeze, or share food or drinks. The bacteria can also be picked up from doorknobs or other surfaces and transferred to your nose, mouth, or eyes.
If you have a sore throat and your doctor suspects that you may have strep throat or another bacterial infection, they may order a throat swab culture. The results of the test will help you and your doctor form a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Most sore throats are caused by a virus. Many sore throats go away within a few days without any treatment, except for possibly cough drops or a few over-the-counter drugs to help relieve any pain or discomfort.
Your doctor will generally order a throat culture test if you have symptoms that suggest strep throat or another infection. Redness, swelling, and white streaks or pus on the tonsils as well as red spots in the roof of the mouth are signs of infections. These signs don’t indicate whether the infection is viral or bacterial, so a throat swab is necessary. Strep throat is very contagious, so it’s important that it is caught early.
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 them to remain still. You may need to help gently restrain them.
Your doctor will ask you to open your mouth and tilt your head back. If necessary, your doctor may use a tongue depressor. This can help your doctor have a better view of the back of your throat. They 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 sample your doctor collects is taken to a laboratory. It will be put on a plate that allows any bacteria on it to grow. The process of growing the bacteria in the sample is called a culture. Chemical tests are conducted on the cultured sample in order to determine if there are any harmful bacteria, and what type of bacteria are present. It usually takes a couple of days to culture the bacteria so you may have to wait some time to receive your test results.
There are no risks or complications associated with a throat swab culture. The test may cause momentary gagging because the back of the throat is a sensitive area, but it shouldn’t be painful.
It can take several days for the results of a throat culture to be ready. Once the sample has been cultured and the bacteria has been analyzed, your doctor will be in touch to talk about your results.
A negative throat swab culture means that no infectious bacteria are present in your throat. A positive test indicates the presence of streptococci (the bacteria that causes strep throat) or other bacteria. If the test result is positive, the results can be used to determine which bacteria are causing the infection. Once your doctor knows what is causing the infection, you can figure out a treatment plan.
In order to address a bacterial infection, your doctor will most likely prescribe an antibiotic. Penicillin and amoxicillin are two commonly prescribed drugs. Some younger children may have a hard time swallowing a pill, or may be experiencing vomiting, so penicillin can be injected if necessary.
Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter drugs, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to help relive throat pain or reduce fever. Most people start to feel better after a day or two, but if symptoms continue to persist after 48 hours you may need to contact your doctor again.
Throat swab cultures are very effective tools for identifying infections that affect the throat. A throat culture will determine if there is a bacterial infection, and if so, what’s causing it. Once you know what’s causing your sore throat, you and your doctor can decide on the best treatment options for you.
Written by: Michael Harkin and Brian Wu
Medically reviewed on: Feb 24, 2016: Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, RN, CNE, COI
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