BACKGROUND: Sputum decontamination with NALC-NaOH (N-acetyl-L-cysteine-sodium hydroxide) is known to better detect Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tb) by culture than that with using NaOH, which is widely used in Korean hospitals. In this report, sputum samples collected from pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) patients were treated with either NaOH or NALC-NaOH, and we compared the results of smear and culture positivity to determine whether the NALC-NaOH treatment method improves culture positivity in the sputum samples, and especially for those sputum samples that are smear negative and scanty. METHODS: For each decontamination method, 436 sputum samples from pulmonary TB patients in the National Masan Tuberculosis Hospital were collected for this study. Sputum from a patient was collected two times for the first and second day of sampling time, and these samples were employed for the decontamination process by performing the 4% NaOH and NALC-2% NaOH treatment methods, respectively, for detecting M. tb by an AFB (Acid Fast Bacilli) smear and also by culture in solid Ogawa medium. RESULTS: The NaOH and NALC-NaOH treatment methods did not significantly affect the AFB smear positivity of the sputum samples (33.0% vs 39.0%, respectively, p=0.078). However, the culture positive percents of M. tb in the Ogawa medium treated with NALC-NaOH and NaOH were 39.7% and 28.0%, respectively, which was a significantly different (p=0.0003). This difference in culture was more prominent in the sputum samples that were smear negative (the positive percents with NALC-NaOH and NaOH were 15.8% and 7.2%, respectively, p=0.0017) and scanty (NALC-NaOH and NaOH were 60.8% and 42.9%, respectively, p=0.036), but not for a smear that was 1+ or higher (p>0.05). CONCLUSION: NALC-NaOH treatment is better than NaOH treatment for the detection of M. tb by culture, but not by smear, and especially when the AFB smear is negative and scanty.