Background: The early diagnosis of infection or sepsis in burns are important for patient care. Globally, a large number of burn centres advocate quantitative cultures of wound biopsies for patient management, since there is assumed to be a direct link between the bioburden of a burn wound and the risk of microbial invasion. Given the conflicting study findings in this area, a systematic review was warranted.
Methods: Bibliographic databases were searched with no language restrictions to August 2015. Study selection, data extraction and risk of bias assessment were performed in duplicate using pre-defined criteria. Substantial heterogeneity precluded quantitative synthesis, and findings were described narratively, sub-grouped by clinical question.
Results: Twenty six laboratory and/or clinical studies were included. Substantial heterogeneity hampered comparisons across studies and interpretation of findings. Limited evidence suggests that (i) more than one quantitative microbiology sample is required to obtain reliable estimates of bacterial load; (ii) biopsies are more sensitive than swabs in diagnosing or predicting sepsis; (iii) high bacterial loads may predict worse clinical outcomes, and (iv) both quantitative and semi-quantitative culture reports need to be interpreted with caution and in the context of other clinical risk factors.
Conclusion: The evidence base for the utility and reliability of quantitative microbiology for diagnosing or predicting clinical outcomes in burns patients is limited and often poorly reported. Consequently future research is warranted.
Keywords: Biopsies; Burns; Infection; Quantitative microbiology; Systematic review; Wound swabs.
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