Respiratory and Sputum Samples

Which sample you should & you could send

  • An expectorated sputum sample may not necessarily be the best specimen to determine the causative organism of a bacterial chest infection. Other specimens may be more accurate and might be taken in addition if the clinical condition of a patient dictates so. Blood cultures, serum serology, lavage specimens or transtracheal aspirates may help finding the causative organism.
  • It is helpful to instruct the patient how to produce a high quality expectorated sputum sample.
  • A sample collected early in the morning is preferred. Pooling of sputum samples is not recommended for culture.
  • For Respiratory Viruses, a nasopharyngeal aspirate, or combined nose and throat swab should be sent in Virus Transport Media 

How to Collect the Sample


  • Provide the patient with a sterile sputum container.
  • Explain the difference between sputum and spit and that a deep coup sample first thing in the morning is the preferred sample.
  • Patients with dentures should remove those and all patients should rinse their mouths with water.
  • The specimen should be collected directly into the container.
  • Screw the lid back on the container and make sure that it does not leak. It might be necessary to seal the container with sticky tape to prevent any leakage.


  • See Pathology Sample Labelling Policy. Label the specimen with patient information (First Name, Surname, DoB, location, physician, time and date) and also fill in those details on the request form.
  • A good history on the request form helps the laboratory tremendously (e.g. "middle lobe pneumonia on CXR" or "exacerbation of COAD on co-amoxiclav/erythromycin").

Which Container does it go in?

 Silver capped or white capped sterile plastic containers for sputum samples

Silver capped or white capped sterile plastic containers should be used. Note that the white capped container is depicted without label for demonstration purposes only. Be aware that some containers are prone to leak and it might require additional sealing with sticky tape.


  • Transport the sample to the laboratory as quickly as possible.
  • Refrigerate the specimen if delay is longer than 2 hours.

Page Reviewed: 15/05/14 | Updated by: Kevin Roberts