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 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
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.
What Is the Purpose of a Throat Swab Culture?
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.
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 them
to remain still. You may need to help gently restrain them.
How Is a Throat Swab Culture Performed?
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
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.
What Can I Expect After the Test?
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.