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Oral Drug Test: Advantages and Disadvantages

An oral drug test, or mouth drug test, works by collecting and testing an individual’s saliva. The most popular and reliable test is the oral swab drug test, in which a sterile swab is placed between the cheek and lower jaw for about three minutes to absorb saliva. 

Employers turn to oral drug testing to ensure their employees are not using illegal drugs. There are also home kits parents can use to determine if their children are taking drugs or drinking alcohol. After collecting the sample and sealing it, it is then sent to a participating lab for testing and results.

Like any drug screen, there are pros and cons of oral swab drug tests. Reading about them can help you decide if this type of screening fits your needs.


Oral Drug Test Benefits 

The benefits of oral drug tests include noninvasive testing and rapid results for several substances. Mouth drug testing is easy to administer and also less expensive than more invasive urine screens and blood draws performed in laboratories. 

Oral tests accurately screen for alcohol and several common street drugs:

  • Amphetamines
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • THC/Marijuana*
  • Methamphetamines
  • Methadone
  • Opiates
  • Phencyclidine (Angel Dust)

* Employers in states where marijuana is permitted for recreational or medical use can still refuse to hire job applicants who test positive for its use. Federal employees are prohibited from using marijuana for any reason.

Many of these drugs are included in multi-drug test panels.


Oral Drug Tests Deliver Rapid Results

Mouth swab drug test detection times vary. Most show results within a day or even sooner, about the same as urine tests. Alcohol can be detected anywhere from six to 12 hours after collecting a saliva sample, and marijuana between 12 and 24 hours. Cocaine use will show up within a day of testing. Longer timeframes are needed for opiates and heroin (two to three days) and methamphetamines (two to four days). 

A few tests provide near-instant results as soon as a sample is added to a collection tube. Others produce results after about 10 minutes.


Alternative Drug Screen Tests are Invasive or Difficult for Patients

A mouth drug test is easier to take when compared to its alternatives: blood draws and urine tests.

  • Blood draws are invasive and may cause unnecessary pain. Even a skilled phlebotomist can have trouble finding a vein to draw blood and leave behind a bruised arm or hand.
  • Plenty of people have trouble producing a urine sample on demand, even after drinking copious amounts of water. Those with paruresis, or shy bladder, have an even more difficult time.

In addition, both blood and urine are classified as hazardous fluids and require special handling to prevent disease transmission.

In contrast, a mouth swab can be done at any time, without added physical or emotional stress. People who are taking and administering the test can be observed without undue violation of personal privacy. 


Oral Drug Test Drawbacks

The drawbacks to oral drug tests include limited drug detection timeframes and potential contamination from mishandling and the use of over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

  • Oral drug tests will only detect drugs used in the past few days, while blood draws and urine screens will detect metabolized drugs. This may not be sufficient for some employers, probation officers, and substance abuse treatment facilities.
  • People administering the test have to be careful to avoid contaminating the sample. They should be trained in proper handling techniques and determine that test subjects have not ingested medication, including OTC; mouthwash with ethyl alcohol; other liquids and food; tobacco; or chewing gum for at least 10 minutes prior to tests. 

Laboratory personnel, on the other hand, have completed specific training and certification for medical procedures that include administering drug screens. They know what questions to ask to determine if any substances are present that can compromise a drug screen. 

Ironically, some drugs cause dry mouth and interfere with producing a sufficient sample.


Can a Person Cheat on a Mouth Drug Test?

Assuming an oral drug test is properly administered, it is unlikely that a subject who has, in fact, recently used illicit drugs can beat it. This is probably why all articles on the topic “how to beat a saliva drug test recommend abstaining for a few days since the tests report on recent drug use.

Proper administration includes keeping a subject waiting for at least ten minutes before taking the test and making sure he or she does not ingest anything during that time. That last point can be challenging if there is a room full of people who are waiting to be tested.

There are no known adulterants that will compromise a saliva test administered in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Saliva cannot be neutralized to affect test results. In addition, many tests include albumin, a protein that ensures the fluid collected and tested really is saliva.


Are Oral Drug Tests Better?

Oral tests look for recent drug use and might be the best scenario from a concerned subject’s point of view. Most can abstain for a few days. Urine tests, on the other hand, can detect use several days prior to testing. Some foods like poppy seeds can trigger false-positive urine screens for opioids three days after consuming bagels or pastries with them.