Employers, parents, treatment providers, law enforcement, and criminal justice professionals have several types of drug screens to consider. Different drug tests are used to quickly obtain results or to test for a variety of substances including alcohol. Some screens look for recent drug use while others can detect substances taken several days or weeks prior to the test.
Six Different Drug Testing Methods that Dominate the Current Market
There are six types of drug testing: oral, urine, blood, hair, perspiration, and breathalyzers. Traditionally, specimens were taken and analyzed in labs. Some tests allow consumers to collect noninvasive specimens and deliver near-instant analysis. Others like hair tests seal the specimen into containers that are sent to a lab.
Urine Screens: The Most Common Type of Drug Tests
Eight in 10 companies — about 90% of employers — require pre-employment drug screens and most rely on urine tests taken onsite, at a lab. Urine screens are also used by detox facilities to ensure patients are staying off drugs.
A typical urine drug test panel looks for evidence of cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, opiates, and alcohol. Some will also look for nicotine.
Saliva-Based Drug Test
Saliva testing looks for recent drug use and provides quick results. The test uses a mouth swab to collect saliva or requires the test subject to spit into a cup. It reveals alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine use within the past few days, except for marijuana, which the test detects only for 10 hours after use.
Blood Test: The Drug Screen Gold Standard
Of all the drug testing methods, blood tests are the most accurate. They are also the only ones that are invasive and must be performed by trained phlebotomists and analyzed in a lab.
Blood tests can detect alcohol use up to 24 hours after drinking. The test panels can also detect cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, opiates, methamphetamines, and nicotine. Blood tests detect THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, weeks after use.
Hair Follicle Drug Test
Hair testing is noninvasive and easy to obtain. The downside is that it does not show evidence of recent drug use, but rather historic drug use, up to 90 days ago to the most recent four or five. It tests for cocaine, marijuana, opiates, methamphetamine, and phencyclidine (PCP).
This test also takes longer to complete than other drug testing methods, particularly for subjects with long hair. At least 1.5” of hair is needed for testing. Every half-inch of hair reveals drug use within the last month. Only the newest hair is used.
Perspiration Drug Detection Test
Perspiration is a new type of drug testing primarily used to monitor people in recovery or on probation/parole. This method screens for drugs through a patch applied to the subject’s skin and left on for 14 days. The patch collects perspiration and analyzes it for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, LSD, and heroin.
Breathalyzer testing for alcohol use is growing in popularity in the home market. New tests include smartphone apps for self-testing. Police use breathalyzers to provide on-the-spot testing for DUI. A suspect is asked to blow into a sterile tube attached to the breathalyzer detection device.
Drug Tests Must Be Properly Administered
Even the most accurate blood test can be contaminated by improper handling that ends in an incorrect result. It’s important to have either a backup test or to permit a retest for subjects who request one, particularly if they take prescription drugs, which can cause false-positive test results.