Bacterial (Growing) Culture and STDs

Bacterial culture is simply a fancy way of saying "growing bacteria in a controlled setting." When doctors are trying to determine if a patient has a bacterial infection — whether it's in a wound, in their throat, or an STD,— they take a sample from the area they think is infected and put it in a special medium where the bacteria can grow. That medium is chosen based on what site the sample is taken from and which types of bacteria are most likely to be present.

MRSA bacteria, shown in false color
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This type of culture can be used to detect everything from strep throat to chlamydia, sometimes even when an infection has barely begun. In fact, a bacterial culture is a useful tool in a doctor's arsenal for just that reason.

Given a comfortable environment in which to do so, bacteria tend to multiply and thrive. This means that, over time, an undetectable number of bacteria that a doctor has sampled from an infected area (like a cut or an ulcer) can quickly multiply to a number that can be more readily observed and identified so that the right treatment can be selected.

Why It's the Gold Standard 

Most bacterial STDs can be detected by bacterial culture. Since culture can detect even very low numbers of bacteria in a simple, it has long been considered the gold standard test for chlamydia and gonorrhea.

However, bacterial culture requires special supplies and techniques, which means that it's not often done when doctors have other options for STD testing. In particular, it has been replaced by LCR and other DNA amplification tests on urine samples for chlamydia in gonorrhea. 

As these types of urine tests have become cheaper and more widely available, recognition of their efficacy has also been growing. In fact, some people now consider these tests to be another gold standard test alongside bacterial culture for some infections. They also have the advantage of being able to detect non-viable bacteria, where culture can only be used to detect living organisms.

Such DNA-based urine testing also may be helpful for the diagnosis and management of bacterial urinary tract infection (UTI).

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Giuliano C, Patel CR, Kale-pradhan PB. A Guide to Bacterial Culture Identification And Results Interpretation. P T. 2019;44(4):192-200.

  2. Grad AI, Vica ML, Matei HV, Grad DL, Coman I, Tataru DA. Polymerase Chain Reaction as a Diagnostic Tool for Six Sexually Transmitted Infections - Preliminary Results. Clujul Med. 2015;88(1):33-7. doi:10.15386/cjmed-373

  3. Haugland S, Thune T, Fosse B, Wentzel-larsen T, Hjelmevoll SO, Myrmel H. Comparing urine samples and cervical swabs for Chlamydia testing in a female population by means of Strand Displacement Assay (SDA). BMC Womens Health. 2010;10:9. doi:10.1186/1472-6874-10-9

Additional Reading
  • Hadgu A, Dendukuri N, Hilden J. Evaluation of Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests in the Absence of a Perfect Gold-Standard Test: A Review of the Statistical and Epidemiologic Issues. Epidemiology. 2005 Sep;16(5):604-12.
  • Hassanzadeh P, Mardaneh J, Motamedifar M. Conventional Agar-Based Culture Method, and Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) of the cppB Gene for Detection of Neisseria gonorrhea in Pregnant Women Endocervical Swab Specimens. Iran Red Crescent Med J. 2013 Mar;15(3):207-11.
  • Peng XB, Zeng K. Ligase chain reaction for Chlamydia Trachomatis Detection in Urine Specimens From Symptomatic and Asymptomatic Men. Di Yi Jun Yi Da Xue Xue Bao. 2004 May;24(5):485-8.
  • Wheeler HL, Skinner CJ, Khunda A, Aitken C, Perpanthan D, Staite E. Molecular Testing (Strand Displacement Assay) for Identification of Urethral Gonorrhea in Men: Can It Replace culture as the Gold Standard? Int J STD AIDS. 2005 Jun;16(6):430-2.

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.