Routine sputum culture is a laboratory test that looks for germs that cause infection. Sputum is the material that comes up from air passages when you cough deeply.
A sputum sample is needed. You will be asked to cough deeply and spit any phlegm that comes up from your lungs into a special container. The sample is sent to a lab. There, it is placed in a special dish (culture). It is then watched for two to three days or longer to see if bacteria or other disease-causing germs grow.
Drinking a lot of water and other fluids the night before the test may make it easier to cough up the sputum.
You will need to cough. Sometimes the health care provider will tap on your chest to loosen deep sputum. Or, you may be asked to inhale a steam-like mist to help you cough up the sputum. You may have some discomfort from having to cough deeply.
The test helps identify the bacteria or other types of germs that are causing an infection in the lungs or airways (bronchi).
In a normal sputum sample there will be no disease-causing germs. Sometimes the sputum culture grows bacteria because the sample was contaminated by bacteria in the mouth.
If the sputum sample is abnormal, the results are called "positive." Identifying the bacteria, fungus, or virus may help diagnose the cause of:
There are no risks with this test.
Brainard J. Respiratory cytology. In: Zander DS, Farver CF, eds. Pulmonary Pathology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 36.
Daly JS, Ellison RT. Acute pneumonia. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 67.