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Acid-fast stain

The acid-fast stain is a laboratory test that determines if a sample of tissue, blood, or other body substance is infected with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (TB) and other illnesses.

How the Test is Performed

Your health care provider will collect a sample of urine, stool, sputum, bone marrow, or tissue, depending on the location of the suspected infection.

The sample is then sent to a laboratory. Some of the sample is placed on a glass slide, stained, and heated. The cells in the sample hold onto the dye. The slide is then washed with an acid solution and a different stain is applied.

Bacteria that hold onto the first dye are considered "acid-fast" because they resist the acid wash. This type of bacteria is associated with TB and other infections.

How to Prepare for the Test

Preparation depends on how the sample is collected. Your provider will tell you how to prepare.

How the Test will Feel

The amount of discomfort depends on how the sample is collected. Your provider will discuss this with you.

Why the Test is Performed

The test can tell if you are likely infected with the bacteria that cause TB and related infections.

Normal Results

A normal result means no acid-fast bacteria were found on the stained sample.

Normal value ranges may vary slightly among different laboratories. Some labs use different measurements or test different samples. Talk to your doctor about the meaning of your specific test result.

What Abnormal Results Mean

Abnormal results may be due to:

Risks

Risks depend on how the sample is collected. Ask your provider to explain the risks and benefits of the medical procedure.

References

Chernecky CC, Berger BJ. Acid-fast bacteria - culture and stain. In: Chernecky CC, Berger BJ, eds. Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:90-91.

Fitzgerald DW, Sterling TR, Haas DW. Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 251.

Murray PR. The clinician and the microbiology laboratory. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 16.

Sorrell TC, Mitchell DH, Iredell JR, Chen SC. Nocardia species. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 255.

Review Date 12/10/2015

Updated by: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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