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blood culture

A blood culture is a test used to detect infection-causing organisms in the blood. Blood infections occur when these organisms have spread from infected areas of the body into the blood. For example, an organism causing an infection in the lungs or kidneys can be detected in the blood using a blood culture. An infection of the blood may be life threatening.

Who is a candidate for the test?
Blood cultures are performed whenever a doctor suspects that a person's symptoms are due to an infection in the blood.

How is the test performed?
In order to do a blood culture, a sample of blood is required. This sample of blood is usually obtained through a vein in the hand or arm. A thin, piece of rubber, is wrapped tightly around the arm which causes the vein to swell with more blood. The skin over the vein is carefully cleaned to remove the bacteria, which is normally present on the skin. A small needle is then inserted through the skin and into the vein. Once the needle is in the vein, blood is allowed to flow through the needle and into a test tube. The blood sample is then sent to the laboratory so cultures can be done.

A culture is an attempt to get organisms that may be present in the blood to grow and multiply. To do this, the blood sample is placed in specially prepared containers and warmed at different temperatures. When enough organisms grow and multiply, they can be identified. This process usually takes 1 to 3 days. In some cases, a culture may take weeks to develop. The organism identified may be a bacteria, virus, fungus, or another type of organism.

The doctor will use blood culture results to select the appropriate medication. Often, treatment is started before the culture results are known. The doctor may need to switch medications once the culture results come back.

What is involved in preparation for the test?
No preparation is needed before blood cultures can be done.

What do the test results mean?
Normally, blood does not contain disease-causing organisms. If the blood culture is "negative", no organisms have grown in the specially prepared containers. However, in some cases, a blood culture may be "negative" even when there are organisms present. Organisms may only enter the blood occasionally, and may not be present when the blood sample was taken. This is why more than one blood sample at different times may be taken. Sometimes the organism may never be identified because it failed to survive or grow in the specially prepared containers.

A "positive" blood culture is abnormal. This means that an organism was found in the sample of blood tested. The presence of an organism often indicates an infection. In some cases, the organism that grows is called a "contaminant". This means the blood sample contains organisms, which did not originate from the tested person's blood. For example, bacteria normally present and harmless on the skin could have entered through the needle when the sample of blood was taken. In this case, an infection is not actually present in the person's blood.

If an infection of the blood is truly present and shows up in the culture, valuable information is gained. Every organism is different and responds to different treatments. Each positive blood culture is tested to see what drugs will be effective to kill the organisms grown. One organism may respond to a certain antibiotic while another organism may not.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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