Drug Testing Methods and Their Accuracy

Urine sample and a gloved hand holding a drug test strip

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Drug testing methods vary depending on the purpose of the screening. Got a new job? Trying to clear your name after an accident? Or just going in for a random check? There are several reasons why you may have to undergo drug testing, and your answer to these questions is closely related to how your drug test will be administered.

5 Drug Testing Methods and Why They Are Used

There are different methods used for drug testing. These methods differ in terms of cost, accuracy, intrusiveness, and where they can be administered. Each test looks for chemical metabolites, or traces, that the drug leaves behind after it is eliminated from the body. The five drug testing methods are:

Type of Test Cost Intrusiveness Administration Detection
Urine Least Expensive Highly At home or in a lab Within 2-3 days
Blood Most Expensive Highly In a lab only Within 2-12 hours
Sweat (Patch) Expensive Low Anywhere Within 10-14 days
Saliva Low Low Anywhere Within 1-2 days
Hair Moderately Expensive Low Anywhere Beyond one week, tests for long-term drug use only

5 Categories of Drugs: The SAMHSA 5

Previously called the NIDA-5, testing companies usually check for these five common types of drugs:

  • Amphetamines (amphetamines and methamphetamines)
  • Cannabis (marijuana and hash)
  • Cocaine (cocaine and crack)
  • Opioids (morphine, heroin, and codeine, as well as synthetic opioids like oxycodone)
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)

Accuracy of Drug Testing

While certain bodily excretions are more accurate than others, the accuracy of drug testing also weighs heavily on the following:

  • The technology used in the test (accuracy varies considerably among types of tests)
  • The chemical nature of individual drugs (varies considerably from drug to drug)
  • The skills and abilities of the testing organization
  • The procedures used to ensure proper handling and processing of samples

What to Expect on Testing Day

Rather than a specific time, most drug testing companies will give you a range of time when you can come in for the test, usually 24-48 hours. Whether your drug screening is for a job or is court-ordered, you will usually be given a list of acceptable drug test centers. Rarely is there only one location recommended. Even if you have never used recreational drugs and seemingly have nothing to worry about, the process can be stressful.

Choose the drug testing center that's closest to home for you, and check up on what others say about the facility, staff, and overall experience. Be sure that you have the proper paperwork with you when you arrive. Usually, additional paperwork or other identifying markers are required in addition to showing government-issued identification. Testing centers do this to ensure that you are the person who is supposed to be tested.

It's smart to arrive ready to give a urine sample, as that will often be required. Do not empty your bladder right before you go to the testing center, or you may have to remain at the center until you are able to produce enough for a good sample.

Getting Your Drug Test Results

After your sample is taken, you will usually not hear about specific results, as many centers only report negative or positive readings based on a detection limit.

Drug testing can be daunting, but if you prepare for what's ahead, you'll be able to get through the process with ease.

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Article Sources
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  2. National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. Iowa Drug Testing Bench Card. Published June 10, 2011.

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  4. Department of Health and Human Services. Mandatory guidelines for federal workplace drug testing programs. Fed Regist. 2017;82(13):7920-70.