Nasopharyngeal Swabs and Cultures

A nasopharyngeal swab is a test to check for upper respiratory infections.

What are nasopharyngeal swabs and cultures?
Why do I need a nasopharyngeal swab and culture?
What are the risks for having a nasopharyngeal swab and culture?
How do I prepare for a nasopharyngeal swab and culture test?
What happens during a nasopharyngeal swab and culture?
What happens after nasopharyngeal swabs and cultures?

What are nasopharyngeal swabs and cultures?

A nasopharyngeal swab is a test to check for upper respiratory infections. Almost all infections are due to community acquired respiratory viruses. These infections cause symptoms like a cough or a runny nose. The test is quick and painless.

Your doctor will take a swab of the secretions (mucus) in the back of the nose and the nasopharynx, which is the part of the pharynx that covers the roof of the mouth. If available, a rapid test will be performed for Influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

The swab will be sent to a lab and studied to see if viruses are present. Sometimes, additional swabs may be taken for bacteria and fungi. Knowing which organisms are causing your symptoms helps your doctor give you the most suitable treatment.

Why do I need a nasopharyngeal swab and culture?

You may need a nasopharyngeal swab test, with or without culture, if you have symptoms such as:

  • A new cough
  • A runny nose
  • Flu-like symptoms, fevers and chills, muscle aches and pains.

These symptoms can be signs of infections caused by different types of viruses and occasionally bacteria. Some treatments are only effective for certain types of organisms.

Many viruses have no effective treatments other than symptom care. A nasopharyngeal swab and culture can help identify if you have:

  • An unusual or antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria, like MRSA
  • Bordetella pertussis infection (whooping cough)
  • Influenza
  • Respiratory syncytial virus
  • Staphylococcus aureus colonisation of the nose and throat.

What are the risks for having a nasopharyngeal swab and culture test?

A nasopharyngeal swab test, with or without culture, has few risks. You may gag a little during the test. You may also feel slightly uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t feel any pain. You may have a minor nosebleed afterwards.

How do I prepare for a nasopharyngeal swab and culture test?

You don’t need to do anything different to prepare for this test. Your doctor can take the test in their room.

What happens during a nasopharyngeal swab and culture test?

The nasopharyngeal swab test, with or without culture, is performed in your doctor’s room. During the test:

  • You will sit with your head straight up in your doctor’s office
  • Your doctor or nurse will wear a mask and gloves
  • Your doctor or nurse will insert a sterile, cotton-tipped swab horizontally through your nostril to the back of your nose and rotate it gently.

This may be repeated in your other nostril If a bacterial culture is needed, you may have a different nasal swab or a throat swab.

What happens after nasopharyngeal swabs and cultures?

After your test, you may notice that your nose feels slightly irritated or it may even bleed. You should be able to resume your normal activities straight away.Your doctor should have your test results within an hour if the rapid test is used or within 2 days. Different organisms respond to different treatments. It’s important to know the specific cause of your infection so it can be treated effectively.

Common treatments for upper respiratory diseases include:

  • Bacterial infections – uncommon, but may need antibiotics
  • Fungal infections – rare, but may need antifungal medications
  • Viral infections – antiviral agents may be used for Influenza and RSV.

If you have any questions about your symptoms, or if you feel your condition is not getting better, speak to your doctor.