Diseases & Conditions

Blood Culture


Overview & Description

A blood culture is a test used to detect organisms in the blood that cause infection. Blood infections occur when these organisms have spread from infected areas of the body into the blood.

Who is a candidate for the test?

Blood cultures are performed whenever a healthcare provider 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, causing the vein to swell with more blood. The skin over the vein is carefully cleaned to remove the bacteria that are 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 lab 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 virus, bacteria, fungus, or another type of organism.

The healthcare provider will use blood culture results to select the appropriate medicine. Often, treatment is started before the culture results are known. The provider may need to switch medicines once the culture results come back.


Preparation & Expectations

What is involved in preparation for the test?

No preparation is needed for a blood culture.


Results and Values

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 have been 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 that did not originate from the tested person's blood. For example, bacteria normally present 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 which medicines will be effective to kill the organism. One organism may respond to a certain antibiotic while another organism may not.


Attribution

Author:Adam Brochert, MD
Date Written:
Editor:Crist, Gayle P., MS, BA
Edit Date:09/19/01
Reviewer:Linda Agnello, RN, BSN
Date Reviewed:09/19/01

Sources

Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998, Fauci et al.