Skin or nail culture
A skin or nail culture is a laboratory test to look for and identify germs that cause problems with the skin or nails.
It is called a mucosal culture if the sample involves the mucous membranes.
Mucosal culture; Culture - skin; Culture - mucosal; Nail culture; Culture - fingernail; Fingernail culture
How the Test is Performed
The health care provider may use a cotton swab to collect a sample from an open skin rash or skin sore.
A sample of skin may need to be taken. This is called a skin biopsy. Before the skin sample is removed, you will likely receive a shot (injection) of numbing medicine to prevent pain.
A small sample of a fingernail or toenail may be taken. The sample is sent to a lab. There, it is placed in a special dish (culture). It is then watched to see if bacteria, viruses, or fungi grow. It may take up to 3 weeks to get results of a nail culture. Further tests can be done to identify the specific germ that is causing your problem. This can help your provider determine the best treatment.
How to Prepare for the Test
There is no preparation needed for this test. If a skin or mucosal sample is needed, your provider will tell you how to prepare.
How the Test will Feel
If a skin sample is taken, you may feel a sting when the shot of numbing medicine is given.
For a nail sample, the provider scrapes the affected area of the nail. There is usually no pain.
Why the Test is Performed
This test may be done to diagnose the cause of:
- A bacteria or fungus infection of the skin, finger, or toenail
- A skin rash or sore that appears to be infected
- A skin ulcer that is not healing
A normal result means no disease-causing germs are seen in the culture.
Some germs normally live on the skin. These are not a sign of infection and are considered a normal finding.
Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Some labs use different measurements or test different samples. Talk to your provider about the meaning of your specific test results.
What Abnormal Results Mean
An abnormal result means bacteria, fungus, or virus is present. This may be a sign of infection.
Common skin infections caused by bacteria include:
- Diabetes foot ulcers
Common skin infections caused by fungus include:
Risks include slight bleeding or infection in the area where the skin sample was removed.
Chernecky CC, Berger BJ. Culture, skin - specimen. In: Chernecky CC, Berger BJ, eds. Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures. 6th ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:411-412.
Habif TP. Dermatologic surgical procedures. In: Habif TP, ed. Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 27.
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.