For great majority of patients, more than 2 sets of blood cultures is not likely to significantly improve the yield of detecting bacteremia.
Although a 2004 report suggested that 2 sets of blood cultures over 24 h period had a sensitivity of only 80% for bacteremia, several other studies have found much higher sensitivities, ranging from ~90%- 99% 2-3. When broken down by organism, sensitivity of 2 sets of blood cultures may be highest for Staphylococcus aureus (97%), followed by E. coli (91%), and Klebsiella pneumoniae (90%) 2. The Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute guidelines recommend paired blood culture sets (each set with 2 bottles, 10 ml of blood in each) to detect about 90-95% of patients with documented bacteremia, and 3 sets for 95-99% detection rate 4.
It seems prudent to strike a balance between drawing more than 2 sets of blood cultures—with its attendant risk of picking up contaminants— and what may be a definite but small incremental increase in the rate of detection of true bacteremia.
Whatever you do, please don’t order only 1 set of blood cultures! Aside from its generally low yield, when positive it may be difficult to distinguish contaminants from true invaders.
- Cockerill FR, Reed GS, Hughes JG, et al. Clinical comparison of BACTEC 9240 Plus Aerobic/F resin bottles and the Isolator aerobic cultures. Clin Infect Dis 2004;38:1724-30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9163464
- Lee A, Mirrett S, Reller LB, et al. Detection of bloodstream infections in adults: how many cultures are needed? J Clin Microbiol 2007; 45:3546-48. http://jcm.asm.org/content/45/11/3546
- Towns ML, Jarvis WR, Hsueh PR. Guidelines on blood cultures. J Microbiol Immunol Infect 2010;43:347-49. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20688297
- Weinstein MP, Reller LB, Murphy JR, et al. The clinical significance of positive blood cultures: a comprehensive analysis of 500 episodes of bacteremia and fungemia in adults. I. Laboratory and eipidemiologic observations. Rev Infect Dis 1982;5:35-53. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6828811