Prevalence and Predictors of Bacterial Contamination in Excisional Lymph Node Biopsies: Implications for Diagnosis and Management

Christopher B. Hergott, Jeffrey W. Craig, Jason L. Hornick, Olga K. Weinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Routine tissue handling exposes lymph node specimens to microbial contamination that can confound microbiological culture results and interfere with diagnosis. The scope and impact of this problem remain poorly understood. We combined over 13 years of lymph node pathology, culture data, and patient records to define the prevalence, predisposing factors, microbiology, and clinical management of false-positive lymph node cultures at a large academic medical center. Nearly one third (31.9%) of 216 cultured lymph nodes yielded bacterial growth. Approximately 90% of positive bacterial cultures grew 1 of 2 common skin-resident taxa - coagulase-negative Staphylococcus and Cutibacterium acnes - with well-documented predispositions for contamination in other clinical settings. Lymph nodes excised from axillary, cervical, and inguinal regions yielded higher positive culture rates than nodes excised from the mediastinum, suggesting proximity to the skin surface may increase contamination risk. Accordingly, cultures from thoracoscopic pulmonary resections displayed contamination rates over 5-fold lower than those from percutaneously accessed lymph nodes. Lymph nodal tissue allocated for culture in the operating room yielded unexpectedly high contamination rates, significantly higher than cultures sent from the frozen section processing area. A significant minority of contamination events were noted in the clinical record and prompted antibiotic therapy on multiple occasions. Collectively, our results illuminate the risk factors contributing to bacterial contamination and argue that routine lymph node bacterial cultures provide minimal clinical benefit for adult patients. This widespread bacterial contamination also warrants cautious implementation of increasingly sensitive molecular microbiology tools for excised tissues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1235-1244
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Surgical Pathology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • contamination
  • culture
  • lymph node
  • microbiology
  • surgical pathology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Surgery
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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