A portion of the sputum is smeared on a microscope slide for a Gram stain. Another portion is spread over the surface of several different types of culture plates, and placed in an incubator at body temperature for one to two days.
A Gram stain is done by staining the slide with purple and red stains, then examining it under a microscope. Gram staining checks that the specimen does not contain saliva or material from the mouth. If many epithelial (skin) cells and few white blood cells are seen, the specimen is not pure sputum and is not adequate for culture. Depending on laboratory policy, the specimen may be rejected and a new specimen requested. If many white blood cells and bacteria of one type are seen, this is an early confirmation of infection. The color of stain picked up by the bacteria (purple or red), their shape (such as round or rectangular), and their size provide valuable clues as to their identity and helps the physician predict what antibiotics might work best before the entire test is completed. Bacteria that stain purple are called gram-positive; those that stain red are called gram-negative.
During incubation, bacteria present in the sputum sample multiply and will appear on the plates as visible colonies. The bacteria are identified by the appearance of their colonies, by the results of biochemical tests, and through a Gram stain of part of a colony.
A sensitivity test, also called antibiotic susceptibility test, is also done. The bacteria are tested against different antibiotics to determine which will treat the infection by killing the bacteria.
The initial result of the Gram stain is available the same day, or in less than an hour if requested by the physician. An early report, known as a preliminary report, is usually available after one day. This report will tell if any bacteria have been found yet, and if so, their Gram stain appearance—for example, a gram-negative rod, or a gram-positive cocci. The final report, usually available in one to three days, includes complete identification and an estimate of the quantity of the bacteria and a list of the antibiotics to which they are sensitive.
Nancy J. Nordenson, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,