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Acid-fast stain

Definition

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 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. There, 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 tuberculosis and other infections.

How to Prepare for the Test

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

How the Test will Feel

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

Why the Test is Performed

The test can tell if you are likely infected with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis 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 health provider to explain the risks and benefits of the medical procedure.

References

Fitzgerald DW, Sterling TR, Haas DW. Mycobacterium tuberculosis. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 250.

Reynolds J. Differential staining of bacteria: acid fast stain. Curr Protoc Microbiol. 2009; Appendix 3: Appendix 3H.


Review Date: 11/20/2013
Reviewed 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. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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