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A throat culture is a test to find germs (such as bacteria or a fungus) that can cause an infection. A sample of cells from the back of your throat is added to a substance that promotes the growth of germs. If no germs grow, the culture is negative. If germs that can cause infection grow, the culture is positive. The type of germ may be identified using a microscope or chemical tests. Sometimes other tests are done to find the right medicine for treating the infection. This is called sensitivity testing.
Examples of infections that may be found during a throat culture include:
This fungus causes thrush, an infection of the mouth and tongue and sometimes of the throat.
This type of bacteria can cause strep throat, scarlet fever, and rheumatic fever. If strep throat is likely, a test called a rapid strep test (or quick strep) may be done before a throat culture. With a rapid strep test, results are ready in 10 minutes instead of 1 to 2 days with a throat culture. If the rapid strep test results are positive, antibiotics can be started right away. A throat culture is more accurate than the rapid strep test. The rapid strep test can give false-negative results even when strep bacteria are present. When the results of a rapid strep test are negative, many doctors recommend doing a throat culture to make sure that strep throat is not present.
This type of bacteria can cause meningitis.
If bacteria grow in the culture, other tests may be done to check which antibiotic will treat the infection best. This is called susceptibility or sensitivity testing.
Most sore throats are caused by an infection with a virus, such as a cold or influenza (flu). Throat cultures aren't done for viral infections. That's because it's very hard to grow viruses.
Instead of a regular throat culture, you may get a different type of test (called a molecular test) that looks for DNA (the genetic information inside cells). A molecular test checks for the most common type of bacteria that causes a throat infection. Both types of tests are done by swabbing the back of your throat.
A throat culture may be done to:
The test will take less than a minute.
You may feel like gagging when the swab touches the back of your throat. If your throat is sore, the swabbing may be slightly painful.
There is very little chance of having a problem from this test.
Throat culture test results for bacterial infections are ready in 1 to 2 days, depending on which bacteria are being tested for. Test results for a fungus may take about 7 days.
Rapid strep test
Another type of test is called a rapid strep test. You can't get this test through an Alberta Health Services lab or service. You may be able to buy this test at your local pharmacy. You’ll get the results of a rapid strep test within 10 to 15 minutes. If you get a negative test result, it could mean you don't have a bacterial throat infection. But sometimes the results of these tests are wrong. If your symptoms don't go away, make an appointment to see your healthcare provider. They may want to send you for a throat culture or a molecular test to check for a throat infection.
Normal (negative results):
No strep bacteria are found. A throat culture may be recommended if your symptoms don't go away.
Abnormal (positive results):
Strep bacteria are found. This means you may have strep throat and may need antibiotics.
No infection (bacteria or fungi) grows in the culture.
A negative throat culture may mean that the cause of your infection is a virus, rather than bacteria or fungus.
Some viruses that cause throat infections include:
Bacteria grow in the culture. Some bacterial throat infections include:
Fungus grows in the culture. The most common fungal throat infection is thrush, caused by the fungus Candida albicans.
Adaptation Date: 2/24/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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