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Pleural fluid culture

Pleural fluid culture is a test that examines a sample of fluid that has collected in the pleural space to see if you have an infection. The pleural space is the area between the lining of the outside of the lungs (pleura) and the wall of the chest. When fluid collects in the pleural space, the condition is called pleural effusion .

Alternative Names

Culture - pleural fluid

How the Test is Performed

A procedure called thoracentesis is used to get a sample of pleural fluid. The sample is sent to a laboratory and examined under a microscope for signs of infection. The sample is also placed in a special dish (culture). It is then watched to see if bacteria or any other germs grow.

How to Prepare for the Test

No special preparation is needed before the test. A chest x-ray will be performed before and after the test.

Do not cough, breathe deeply, or move during the test to avoid injury to the lung.

How the Test will Feel

For thoracentesis, you sit on the edge of a chair or bed with your head and arms resting on a table. The health care provider cleans the skin around the insertion site. Numbing medicine (anesthetic) is injected into the skin.

A needle is placed through the skin and muscles of the chest wall into the space around the lungs, called the pleural space. As fluid drains into a collection bottle, you may cough a bit. This is because your lung re-expands to fill the space where fluid had been. This sensation lasts for a few hours after the test.

During the test, tell your health care provider if you have sharp chest pain or shortness of breath.

Why the Test is Performed

Your doctor may order this test if you have signs of a certain infection or if a chest x-ray or CT scan of the chest shows you have too much fluid in space around the lungs.

Normal Results

A normal result means no bacteria or fungi were seen in the test sample.

A normal value is no growth of any bacteria. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Abnormal results may indicate:

Risks

Risks of thoracentesis are:

  • Collapse of the lung (pneumothorax )
  • Excessive loss of blood
  • Fluid re-accumulation
  • Infection
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Respiratory distress
  • Serious complications are uncommon

References

Broaddus VC, Light RW. Pleural effusion. In: Mason RJ, Murray JF, Broaddus VC, et al., eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 73.

Karcher DS. McPherson RA. Cerebrospinal, synovial, serous body fluids, and alternative specimens. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 29.

Updated: 11/20/2013

Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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