How To Survive a Throat Culture

By Howard J. Bennett

Imagine this: You have just woken up thinking school is closed because eight inches of snow fell overnight. As you open your eyes and look around the room, you discover that (a) it was just a dream and (b) your throat is killing you. When your mom comes upstairs to get you out of bed, she takes one look at you and says, “Oh, sweetie, you’re sick.”

Two hours later, your doctor removes a six-inch swab from one of his medical jars and says he needs to do a throat culture. The thought of getting your throat swabbed makes your eyes glassy and your heart race. You now have three choices: (a) run for your life, (b) try to convince the doctor that your throat doesn’t hurt anymore or (c) bravely open wide as he rubs the swab against your poor, helpless tonsils.

So what is it that turns a caring healer into a fiendish ghoul? Doctors take a throat culture (that’s what the torture is called) to check for an infection called a strep throat. Although viruses cause most sore throats, strep can make you a lot sicker. Typical symptoms include pain with swallowing, fever, headache, stomachache, and tender lymph nodes. (Parents often call them “glands,” but “lymph nodes” is the correct term.) Not everyone gets all of these symptoms, so parents are always on the lookout for strep.

Having cultured thousands of sore throats in my life, I use a technique that often makes the procedure less painful.

• Sit on your hands to keep them from instinctively grabbing the doctor’s hand, which would require him to swab you a second time. Little kids can sit on a parent’s lap so that Mom or Dad can hold their arms at their sides.

• Tilt your head back, open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue like you are trying to lick your chin.

• Right before the doctor swabs your throat, cough twice. The back of your throat vibrates when you cough, which makes the swab hurt less.

Have you ever noticed what doctors do after the swab is taken out of your mouth? Most start off with something called a “rapid strep test,” which is a chemical test that takes about ten minutes to complete. If this test is positive, you will get antibiotics to treat the infection. If the rapid test is negative, the doctor will do an overnight throat culture. This involves spreading some of your throat goo on a petri dish that’s put in an incubator.

There are different types of petri dishes, but the ones used for strep contain a gelatin that looks like strawberry Jell-0. The red color comes from sheep’s blood that is mixed into the gelatin because strep bacteria love blood! If someone has a strep throat, the next day the petri dish will contain lots of pale areas because the strep “ate” the sheep’s blood overnight. Yum!


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 5/16/11.)

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