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Sputum Gram Stain

Definition

A sputum Gram stain is a laboratory test that uses a series of stains to check for bacteria in a sputum sample. Sputum is the mucous material that comes up from your air passages when you cough very deeply.

The Gram stain method is one of the most commonly used techniques for the rapid diagnosis of bacterial infections, including bacterial pneumonia.

Alternative Names

Gram stain of sputum

How the test is performed

A sputum sample is needed. You will be asked to cough deeply and spit any material that comes up from your lung into a special container. If this does not work, you may receive a breathing treatment before the test to help you produce the sample. If you have a dry cough or are unable to produce a sample, a bronchoscopy may be necessary.

The sample is sent to a lab. The lab team member places a very thin layer of the sample onto a glass slide -- this is called a smear. A series of special stains is applied to the sample. The lab team member looks at the stained slide under a microscope, checking for bacteria and white blood cells. The color, size, and shape of the cells help identify the infecting organism.

How to prepare for the test

No preparation is usually needed, unless a bronchoscopy is necessary.

How the test will feel

How the test will feel depends on the method used to produce the sample. More discomfort is associated with a bronchoscopy.

Why the test is performed

Your doctor may order this test if you have a persistent or prolonged cough, or if you are coughing up material that has a foul odor or unusual color. The test may also be done if you have other signs and symptoms of respiratory disease or infection.

Normal Values

A normal result means that few to no white blood cells and no bacteria were seen in the sample. The sputum is clear, thin, and odorless.

Note: Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test results.

What abnormal results mean

An abnormal results means that infection-causing organisms are present in the sample. This is a sign that a bacterial infection may be present. A sputum culture is needed to confirm the diagnosis.

What the risks are

There are no risks associated with coughing up a sample. See the article on bronchoscopy for information regarding risks related to that procedure.

Special considerations

The test may need to be repeated if the sample contains only saliva from the mouth.

References

Mandell LA. Pneumococcal pneumonia. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 311.

Review Date: 12/3/2007

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Information developed by A.D.A.M., Inc. regarding tests and test results may not directly correspond with information provided by UCSF Medical Center. Please discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.