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Why it is needed and how it helps

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Gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection that causes symptoms such as diarrhea, cramps, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and fever.

Viruses, bacteria and parasites can cause gastroenteritis. Stool culture can test the underlying cause of gastroenteritis.

Keep reading about managing gastroenteritis and when your doctor will order a stool culture test.

Stool culture involves providing a sample of stool to a doctor or medical professional. To do this, your doctor, or a nurse in your doctor’s office, will give you a special container with a lid. Then take this container home and collect stool samples according to specific instructions.

After collecting a sample of stool, take the container to your doctor’s office or laboratory. The laboratory technician takes a sample of the stool and places it on a special “plate” where the bacteria can grow in the presence of the bacteria.

Technicians examine the growth of organisms under the plate and try to identify the type of bacteria. They may also look at the stool under a microscope to look for parasites or the presence of eggs that the parasites may have laid.

The results of this test are not always quick. Bacteria may be low in the stool and it may take several days for the bacteria to “grow” or appear on the plate. This is why doctors do not use stool cultures for gastroenteritis.

If the symptoms of gastroenteritis are mild, your doctor may not order a stool culture.

This is probably because it gets better in a few days and doesn’t require treatment. In many cases, stool culture will be an unnecessary test for you to receive or process in the laboratory.

However, in some cases, your doctor will order a stool culture. This can happen in the following cases:

  • I have symptoms that last for more than a week
  • 65 years old and over
  • Immune weakened (from another condition or illness)
  • I have more than 6 bowel movements daily and am dehydrated
  • Show signs of dysentery (bloody diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain)
  • Have a history or risk factor for a particular parasite or pathogen

Your doctor may order stool cultures for these or other related reasons.

It is important to remember that stool cultures usually do not help doctors diagnose gastroenteritis. Diagnosis can usually be based on symptoms.

Instead, stool cultures help doctors determine if there are bacterial organisms that are causing your condition. If the bacteria are absent and another test shows no signs of parasites, the symptoms can be considered viral if the duration is less than 2 weeks.

Ideally, stool cultures help ensure that when you need a drug, you get the right type of drug and the cause of gastroenteritis.

Stool culture helps doctors decide whether to prescribe medications. Prescribing antibiotics or antiparasitics does not help if the culture points to the virus as the cause of your symptoms.

While the technician was culturing the stool, the doctor may also have ordered additional tests to look for other atypical substances in the stool. Examples may include fat, blood, or white blood cells, according to ACG.

If tests reveal that the cause of gastroenteritis is bacteria or parasites, your doctor may decide to prescribe a drug based on these test results.

If a stool culture test does not show that the cause is bacteria or parasites, the doctor will choose a variety of treatment options.

Gastroenteritis can cause many unpleasant symptoms, including:

These symptoms usually go away or begin to relieve within a few days. However, if your symptoms worsen or last for more than 2 days, be sure to see a doctor.

Immediate medical care is important in the following cases:

  • High fever
  • Black, tally stool
  • Stool containing pus
  • Bright red blood stool
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Loose stools more than 6 times a day
  • Difficult to control water
  • Changes in mental status such as lethargy and confusion

Gastroenteritis usually heals spontaneously within a few days without the need for testing or prescription treatment. However, if you have severe or long-term symptoms, your doctor may order a stool culture test.

If a stool culture test determines that the infection is due to bacteria, your doctor may prescribe medication based on these test results.

If you or your child has gastroenteritis, remember to drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. Over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte can also help replenish lost water and electrolytes. Seek medical attention immediately if you or your child has symptoms of dehydration.