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Viral Culture

Does this test have other names?

No.

What is this test?

This test checks to see whether an infection is caused by a bacterium or a virus. It can also tell which specific virus is causing your infection.

Viral infections can cause illnesses anywhere in the body. This includes the skin, digestive tract, urinary tract, brain, lungs, and eyes. These illnesses can range from minor problems to serious diseases.

Viral cultures are done in different ways, depending on your condition and the virus the healthcare provider thinks you may have. You may need to give a sample of blood, urine, or bodily fluids. In general, your test sample will be treated in the lab to keep the cells alive and allow them to grow. After a certain period of time, your culture sample will be checked to see if viruses are growing.

Why do I need this test?

You may need this test if your healthcare provider needs to find out whether you have a medical problem caused by a virus. Viral infections include bronchitis, pneumonia, meningitis, and encephalitis.

What other tests might I have along with this test?

Your healthcare provider may also order tests using bodily fluids or tissue samples to look for:

  • The genetic material of the virus

  • Antibodies that your body has made against a virus

What do my test results mean?

Test results may vary depending on your age, gender, health history, the method used for the test, and other things. Your test results may not mean you have a problem. Ask your healthcare provider what your test results mean for you. 

Normal results are negative, meaning you don't have the virus in your body. Positive results mean that a virus grew in the culture and that you have a viral infection.

How is this test done?

Depending on your illness and the type of virus that could be causing it, a healthcare provider may need a sample of:

  • Fluid from the back of your nose or throat

  • Fluid and cells from a skin rash

  • Blood

  • Cerebrospinal fluid

  • Amniotic fluid

  • Urine

Does this test pose any risks?

Having a blood test with a needle carries some risks. These include bleeding, infection, bruising, and feeling lightheaded. When the needle pricks your arm or hand, you may feel a slight sting or pain. Afterward, the site may be sore. 

Other tests need a sample of cerebrospinal fluid, which is taken through a lumbar puncture in your lower back. During this procedure, a healthcare provider puts a needle between the bones of your spine and draws out a sample of fluid. Risks from a lumbar puncture include discomfort while the needle is inserted, headache, infection, bleeding, and brain herniation, which is rare but life-threatening.

Providing a urine sample poses no risks.

What might affect my test results?

Waiting too long after infection can affect your results. If you have a viral infection, a sample for the culture should be taken soon after you develop symptoms for the best chance of capturing viruses. The test may be less useful later in the illness.

How do I get ready for this test?

You don't need to prepare for this test. Be sure your healthcare provider knows about all medicines, herbs, vitamins, and supplements you are taking. This includes medicines that don't need a prescription and any illicit drugs you may use.  

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Haldeman-Englert, Chad, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2017
© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.