There are many variables involved in performing a blood culture. Before the person's blood is drawn, the physician must make several decisions based on a knowledge of infections and the person's clinical condition and medical history.
Several groups of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, mold, and yeast, can cause blood infections. The bacteria group can be further broken down into aerobes and anaerobes. Most aerobes do not need oxygen to live. They can grow with oxygen (aerobic microbes) or without oxygen (anaerobic microbes).
Based on the clinical condition of the patient, the physician determines what group of microorganisms is likely to be causing the infection and then orders one or more specific types of blood culture, including aerobic, anaerobic, viral, or fungal (for yeasts and molds). Each specific type of culture is handled differently by the laboratory. Most blood cultures test for both aerobic and anaerobic microbes. Fungal, viral, and mycobacterial blood cultures can also be done, but are less common.
The physician must also decide how many blood cultures should be done. One culture is rarely enough, but two to three are usually adequate. Four cultures are occasionally required. Some factors influencing this decision are the specific microorganisms the physician expects to find based on the person's symptoms or previous culture results, and whether or not the person has had recent antibiotic therapy.
The time at which the cultures are to be drawn is another decision made by the physician. During most blood infections (called intermittent bacteremia) microorganisms enter the blood at various time intervals. Blood drawn randomly may miss the microorganisms. Since microorganisms enter the blood 30–90 minutes before the person's fever spikes, collecting the culture just after the fever spike offers the best likelihood of finding the microorganism. The second and third cultures may be collected at the same time, but from different places on the person, or spaced at 30-minute or one-hour intervals, as the physician chooses. During continuous bacteremia, such as infective endocarditis, microorganisms are always in the blood and the timing of culture collection is less important. Blood cultures should always be collected before antibiotic treatment has begun.
Nancy J. Nordenson, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,