Laboratory tests may identify organisms directly (eg, visually, using a microscope, growing the organism in culture) or indirectly (eg, identifying antibodies to the organism). General types of tests include microscopy, culture, immunologic tests (agglutination tests such as latex agglutination, enzyme immunoassays, Western blot, precipitation tests, and complement fixation tests), and nucleic and non-nucleic acid–based identification methods. Culture is normally the gold standard for identification of organisms, but results may not be available for days or weeks, and not all pathogens can be cultured, making alternative tests useful. When a pathogen is cultured and identified, the laboratory can also assess its susceptibility to antimicrobial drugs. Sometimes molecular methods can be used to detect specific resistance genes.
Some tests (eg, Gram stain, routine aerobic culture) can detect a large variety of pathogens and are commonly done for many suspected infectious illnesses. However, because some pathogens are missed on these tests, clinicians must be aware of the limitations of each test for each suspected pathogen. In such cases, clinicians should request tests specific for the suspected pathogen (eg, special stains or culture media) or advise the laboratory to select more specific tests.
Last full review/revision February 2013 by Kevin C. Hazen, PhD