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Collecting Samples for Testing

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Samples That Are Easy to Obtain

Some samples are collected by simply running a swab over the affected area. Procedures of this type can be performed in a clinic, in your doctor's office, or at the hospital bedside. The sample may be sent to a laboratory for analysis (although a few tests can provide in-office results in just a few minutes). Throat, nasal, vaginal, and superficial wound cultures, for example, are obtained in this way. The procedures, while they may sometimes be uncomfortable, are generally quick, relatively painless, and have no after-effects.

Examples of such collections include:

Secretions and Tissues from the Female Reproductive System — Samples of vaginal secretions are obtained by running a cotton swab over the walls of the vagina; cervical cells for a Pap smear are obtained using a cotton swab and spatula (called a speculum) or a tiny brush. Both procedures are painless. Endometrial tissue samples are obtained by inserting a thin, flexible, hollow tube into the uterus, during which you may feel a slight pinch or brief cramping. Patients may feel embarrassed or vulnerable because of how these samples are collected. Some patients find the position of the legs uncomfortable, some complain that the stirrups and speculum are cold, and some feel slight pressure as the speculum is inserted. A sensitive approach by the health care professional contributes greatly to the patient's emotional comfort. If you are physically uncomfortable, try asking for what you need (such as a smaller speculum or "booties" for the stirrups). Also, if you would be more at ease if a woman performs these procedures or if a female health worker is in the room when the procedure is performed, ask your practitioner to arrange one of these options for you.

Secretions and Fluids from the Nose or Throat — The specimen is collected by running a swab over the area of interest. People typically respond to swabbing of their throat with a momentary "gag" reflex. If the throat is sore, the sample collection, brief as it is, can be uncomfortable. Similarly, a nasal swab may be a bit uncomfortable as the swab is inserted and reaches areas inside the nose that are typically never touched. Try to remember that the discomfort is temporary and ask your practitioner if there are ways to minimize any soreness that may result. You may also find it helpful to perform relaxation techniques before, during, or after the procedure.

Samples from Open Wounds and Sores — If a wound or sore is located in the outer layer of skin, the specimen is typically collected on a swab by brushing the swab over the area and gathering a sample of fluid or pus. Touching the open wound area may be temporarily painful since the wound is likely to be tender and sore. If a wound or infection is deep, however, a needle and syringe may be used to aspirate a sample of fluid or pus from the site.

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