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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Predicting results of mycobacterial culture on sputum smear reversion after anti-tuberculous treatment: a case control study

Chin-Chung Shu1, Jann-Tay Wang2, Chih-Hsin Lee3, Jann-Yuan Wang2*, Li-Na Lee4 and Chong-Jen Yu2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Traumatology, National Taiwan University Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan

2 Department of Internal Medicine, National Taiwan University Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan

3 Department of Internal Medicine, Buddhist Tzu Chi General Hospital, Taipei Branch, Taipei, Taiwan

4 Department of Laboratory Medicine, National Taiwan University Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2010, 10:48  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-10-48

Published: 6 March 2010



Little is currently known regarding sputum smear reversion (acid-fast smear becomes positive again after negative conversion) during anti-tuberculous treatment. This study aimed to evaluate its occurrence in patients with pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) and identify factors predicting results of mycobacterial culture for smear-reversion of sputum samples.


The retrospective review was performed in a tertiary referral center and a local teaching hospital in Taiwan. From 2000 to 2007, patients with smear-positive culture-confirmed pulmonary TB experiencing smear reversion after 14 days of anti-tuberculous treatment were identified.


The 739 patients with smear-positive pulmonary TB had 74 (10%) episodes of sputum smear reversion that grew Mycobacterium tuberculosis in 22 (30%) (Mtb group). The remaining 52 episodes of culture-negative sputum samples were classified as the non-Mtb group. The anti-tuberculous regimen was modified after confirming smear reversion in 15 (20%). Fourteen episodes in the Mtb group and 15 in the non-Mtb group occurred during hospitalization. All were admitted to the negative-pressure rooms at the time of smear reversion. Statistical analysis showed that any TB drug resistance, smear reversion within the first two months of treatment or before culture conversion, and the absence of radiographic improvement before smear reversion were associated with the Mtb group. None of the smear reversion was due to viable M. tuberculosis if none of the four factors were present.


Sputum smear reversion develops in 10% of patients with smear-positive pulmonary TB, with 30% due to viable M. tuberculosis bacilli. Isolation and regimen modification may not be necessary for all drug-susceptible patients who already have radiographic improvement and develop smear reversion after two months of treatment or after sputum culture conversion.