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What are the Different Types of Swab Culture?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A swab culture is a sample of bodily fluid taken for testing, using a sterile swab that appears similar to the common cotton swab found in many bathrooms. A medical swab is larger and may or may not be cotton. Once the sample is taken, the swab is generally placed into a sterile container and sent to a lab where the actual culture is performed. This is done by smearing the swab over a plate or slide and allowing the bacteria and other organisms to incubate and grow.

The sample is then viewed to determine which if any abnormalities are present. Different types of medicine may be applied to see which is the most effective, so the doctor or other healthcare provider can prescribe the best medicine. This is referred to as sensitivity testing. A swab culture can be used to test for many different types of health issues.

One common type is a throat swab culture used to test for strep throat. Samples are collected from the back of the throat and tonsil area and may be grown for several days before lab results are available. There is also an immediate test, which utilizes a coated strip with the swab. Antibodies on the strip, when combined with the body fluid on the swab, will create a reaction if there is strep. These quick tests don’t tend to be as reliable as a full swab culture performed by a lab.

Other types of swab cultures can be used in a similar manner to remove fluids from other areas of the body to test for disease or to identify DNA. Testing for health issues can include everything from testing for a simple urinary infection to testing for life threatening illnesses. Paternity testing kits are now available for home use, but there are other types of DNA testing, for purposes ranging from finding long-lost relatives to solving crimes.

A urethra swab culture for men or a cervical or vaginal swab culture for women may be used to test for particular types of sexually transmitted diseases. In some cases, a less intrusive, more superficial swab culture can be taken such as where sores or lesions are present. With wounds, including burns, a quantitative culture may be used to test for infection. A sputum swab, one that is used to collect a sample from what most people refer to as “phlegm,” can be used to test for tuberculosis.

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Discussion Comments

By JaneAir — On Jul 18, 2011

@JessicaLynn - I think the reason some cultures take longer than other is because they are testing for different bacteria. When doing the culture, you have to wait to see what bacteria or viruses are going to grow in the sample. I believe some take longer than other to grow.

By JessicaLynn — On Jul 18, 2011

Swab cultures sound very versatile! They can be used to test for everything from strep throat to a urinary tract infection.

I always think it's interesting how some test go really quickly while other takes a long time. For example, the frequently used rapid strep test is ready within minutes. But I know for some other swab tests I've had they had to send it to a lab and the results took about a week.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 17, 2011

@shell4life - I frequently develop strep throat, so I knew about the rapid strep test. However, since antibiotics will be prescribed for both strep and other throat infections, it doesn’t really matter which you are diagnosed with.

With strep throat, doctors will sometimes prescribe a dose pack of steroids to help you recover quickly. With upper respiratory infections, often an antihistamine is given instead. The steroids can often have negative side effects, such as bloating, sleeplessness, and mood changes.

You would probably do best just to take the antibiotics, because even without steroids, you will recover in two or three days. By the time the swab test results from a full culture are ready, you will already be over your illness.

By shell4life — On Jul 16, 2011

Well, this article explains what happened last week when both my husband and I developed throat infections. He got sick first, and when the nurse swabbed his throat to test for strep, they got the results back in just a few minutes. I wondered how they did it so quickly, because I did not know then that an immediate test was available.

Also, I believe what the article says about this type of test not being as dependable. My husband tested negative for strep, but I tested positive for it when I developed the exact same symptoms a few days later. I know that I had to have gotten it from him, and I believe that the immediate test did not show accurate results.

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