Q: Why Culture Bacteria Before Antibiotic Use?

Nutrition | | July 14, 2010 at 7:00 am
Photo by Mai Le.

Photo by Mai Le.

Q: My son’s pediatrician just prescribed antibiotics for what she thought was bronchitis. I thought the antibiotic choice was strange since I was prescribed the same one weeks earlier for a stubborn urinary tract infection. I usually take herbs for infections and know that different herbs are used for different bacterias. Isn’t there a way to match antibiotics with particular bacterias as they differ? Jaycn L. Austin, Texas

A: Great question, the answer is yes! There is a procedure referred to as culturing bacteria for sensitivity that is employed in the lab to distinguish specific strains of bacteria from one another. Once the strain is determined, the proper antibiotic is administered to eradicate infection.

Culturing for bacteria takes time and has been criticized by some seasoned professionals as stalling treatment. The argument some clinicians make is that they’ve seen so many similar cases, why waste time when they can simply treat? The value of culturing however that is often overlooked is that it also rules out whether or not the infection is of bacterial or viral origin. Consider earaches for instance. Most earaches and ear infections are initially caused by a virus. The bacteria can come later, but doesn’t always. The point is to properly distinguish bacterias from viruses to ensure the most precise care.

Although compounding research reveals antibiotic resistance continues to grow, antibiotic overuse remains a serious public health issue. Usually patients visit their health care provider wanting immediate treatment and answers. In response to an ailing patient before them, health care providers often prescribe antibiotics based upon the clinical presentation of signs and symptoms without culturing. This quick-draw approach to antibiotic use however contributes to the still growing issue of anti-biotic resistance.

Being your own advocate is the best advice I offer patients on this hot-button topic. Give your naturopath or Chinese health care provider a call to see if antibiotic use can be avoided. If it is in fact necessary, insist your provider culture the bacteria to best match the medicine with the specific strain. Remember, by protecting yourself and your family, you’re playing a larger role in preserving community health!

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ChristineChristine M. Dionese L.Ac. specializes in integrative medicine, medical journalism and was the VP of marketing at WellWire LLC. Visit her wellness and lifestyle blog, Reaching Beyond Now.

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  1. Gibran Ramos says:

    I have heard of physicians wanting to start antibiotics as soon as possible in tenuous and urgent possible infections. Is this “stalling” described above?

  2. Great question! There is certainly a distinction to be made between antibiotic use for emergent situations from less severe instances. When possible infection into the bloodstream could be fatal, the risk outweighs all other factors rendering immediate treatment appropriate. Patient follow-up and tracking then becomes essential to be sure proper medicines can continue to be developed and reserved for these potentially life-threatening circumstances.

    The number one concern with antibiotic use is proper diagnosis. Researchers fear health care providers will not have appropriate medicines available to treat certain conditions if the current trend of dispensing continues. As I noted above, it’s important to consider that the underlying cause of infection may be viral, fungal or even parasitic in nature.

    Antibiotic resistance should be considered an opportunity for more precise diagnostic testing to be developed and available to primary care providers and specialists alike. Certain specialty diagnostics already exist, yet only a small percentage of health care providers currently use them in practice (often naturopaths and some Chinese medical clinicians).

    For anyone that likes to see more of the science; Infectious Disease News is an excellent resource that combines the research and socio-cultural implications of infectious diseases. Here’s a link discussing antibiotic resistance and the public health implications: http://bit.ly/c7Q58b

  3. Kathryn says:


    I used to come down with bronchitis anywhere from once to three times a year. I regularly refused antibiotics because the doctors could not tell me whether I had a viral or bacterial bronchitis. With a little time and things, such as cough medicine, to address the symptoms, I got over it – probably in about the same amount of time as if I had taken antibiotics. Turns out, I had chronic mononucleosis. Once that was addressed, I stopped coming down with bronchitis.

    The other thing that the doctors who routinely prescribe antibiotics are not addressing is what that regular use does to your colon. Not good.

  4. Innovotech says:


    Your comment “….insist your provider culture the bacteria to best match the medicine with the specific strain” is right on the mark. The issue lies, however, in the fact that the test that we currently use for this purpose is based on 160 year old microbiology, and tests antibiotics against the bacteria causing the infection the way the bacteria grow in a lab (free-floating), not the way they grow and cause infection in the body (as a biofilm).

    We use this test despite the fact that the National Institutes of Health indicates that over 80% of all human infections are caused by biofilms, organized communities of microorganisms. Biofilms can be up to 1000 times more resistant to treatment than the same organism in a free-floating (planktonic) state and yet we still use the current test which determines the antibiotic based on the free-floating form of the bacteria. As a result, physicians have to resort to a “trial and error” process to determine the most effective antibody to use, which can ultimately lead to inappropriate treatment of chronic infections, repeated treatment failures and an increase in the potential for bacterial resistance.

    With that in mind, Innovotech has developed tests that assess the biofilm antibiotic susceptibility of the bacteria causing the infection, providing a more accurate, comprehensive assessment, increasing the like hood that the physician will choose the right antibiotic right from the start. Please visit http://www.chronicinfectionproblem.com for more information.