Blood cultures in the critical care unit: improving utilization and yield

Chest. 2002 Nov;122(5):1727-36. doi: 10.1378/chest.122.5.1727.


Sepsis is a common cause of morbidity and death in critically ill patients, and blood culture samples are often drawn in an effort to identify a responsible pathogen. Blood culture results are usually negative, however, and even when positive are sometimes difficult to interpret. Distinguishing between true bacteremia and a false-positive blood culture result is important, but complicated by a variety of factors in the ICU. False-positive culture results are costly because they often prompt more diagnostic testing and more antibiotic prescriptions, and increase hospital length of stay. A number of factors influence the yield of blood cultures in critically ill patients, including the use of antibiotics, the volume of blood drawn, the frequency with which culture samples are drawn, and the site from which the culture samples are taken. Skin preparation techniques, handling of the cultures in the microbiology laboratory, and the type of blood culture system employed also influence blood culture yield. Attempts to identify predictors of true bacteremia in critically ill patients have been disappointing. In this review, we discuss factors that influence blood culture yield in critically ill patients, suggest ways to improve yield, and discuss true bacteremia vs false-positive blood culture results. We also discuss the costs and consequences of false-positive blood culture results, and list noninfectious causes of fever in the ICU.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteremia / blood
  • Bacteremia / microbiology
  • Bacteria / growth & development*
  • Bacteriological Techniques / economics
  • Bacteriological Techniques / statistics & numerical data
  • Blood / microbiology*
  • Costs and Cost Analysis
  • Critical Care
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*