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What is a Throat Swab?

By Amy Weekley
Updated Feb 06, 2024
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A throat swab is a type of outpatient medical diagnostic test in which a cotton swab is swiped across the inner surface of the throat near the tonsils in order to obtain a small tissue sample. This test is most often used to diagnose whether or not a patient is infected with a bacterial infection of the throat — typically streptococcus infection, more commonly known as strep throat. The throat swab test is also called a throat culture or strep culture.

Strep throat is a fairly common illness, often spread in the winter months. It is easily passed from person to person via coughing, sneezing, and sharing food or drinks. The most common symptom of strep throat is a sore or itchy throat. Other symptoms may include painful swallowing, bad breath, earache, headache, stomach ache, mild fever, swollen and sore tonsils and neck glands, red, white, or yellow spots in the throat or on the roof of the mouth, and runny nose. The presence of these symptoms may prompt a health care provider to do a throat swab in order to determine the best course of treatment.

In order to perform the test, the patient is asked to tilt his or her head back with the mouth wide open. A long cotton swab is then rubbed on the back of the throat a few times to obtain a sample. This often causes the patient to experience a gagging reflex, and in some rare instances this gagging reflex may cause the patient to cough or vomit. The test is generally well tolerated and poses minimal risk to the patient.

Throat swab tests can be administered in a doctor's office or at a medical clinic, and some pharmacies offer a type of throat swab known as a rapid strep test for a quick diagnosis. The rapid strep test produces results within minutes, where a more thorough throat culture will yield results in one or two days. If infection is found to be present in the throat, the patient will often be administered a ten-day round of antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria and help prevent the spread of infection to others. With medical treatment, the patient ceases to be contagious within 24 hours of starting antibiotics, and pain will last one to three days. The patient must take the full round of antibiotics in order to completely clear the infection and prevent re-infection.

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Discussion Comments
By whitesand — On Jun 23, 2011

@aviva - Wow, I'm sorry your daughter had such a terrible experience with the throat swab. It's too bad she had to go through all of that just to find out that she didn't even have strep throat to begin with.

I've never had any problems like that with my son and he's probably had four or five strep throat cultures in the past. I don't exactly remember the first visit but I do know he doesn't mind so much any more because he knows the antibiotic is going to make him feel so much better.

By aviva — On Jun 21, 2011

The article suggests that the throat swab procedure is generally a tolerable experience for most patients but let me tell you my daughter was the exception to the rule.

She was probably about five or six years old at the time when I took her in to test for a strep throat infection. She had always like going to the doctor's office before, you know, bouncing around and looking forward to the attention they gave her.

But on this particular visit, as soon as the nurse walked in and told my daughter to sit still and open wide, she froze and did just as the nurse asked. But once that stick touched the back of my daughter's throat she clammed shut her mouth, covering it with her hands and started crying and screaming.

I tried helping her by coaxing and comforting my daughter but after about five minutes or so of struggling with her, the nurse had to call in two of her assistants for help. I was so embarrassed. It took three of us to hold down this little child so they could get a good throat swab culture from her.

Luckily it worked and the results were negative but that episode has left a profound effect on my daughter. Every time we visit her doctor now, a different physician than before, she always asks me while we're in the waiting room if they're going to do the throat thing.

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