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How Drug Tests Work for Saliva and Urine Screening

Drug Test

Out of all working Americans, 7.7% have an alcohol use disorder and 15.6% have another substance abuse disorder.

While percentages are increasing, productivity and safety are decreasing, and this isn’t solely an issue in the workplace.

One way to combat this issue is to require drug tests. They allow you to see if someone is potentially a risk to those around them.

Plus, having proof of abuse helps in facilitating a conversation surrounding recovery.

There are several different tests to choose from, with urine and saliva being the most popular. Both of these tests offer a variety of substances to monitor (referred to as “panels”).

Here’s a look at the methodology behind these tests so you can choose the right one and keep your people safe.

Urine Drug Tests

Urine tests are common, as they are relatively cheap and the results are quick compared to other methods. You can even order them online.

Subjects urinate in a sample cup. Most require 45 milliliters.

To ensure the sample isn’t altered, there isn’t any running water in the restroom or there’s an attendant present.

Once they’ve filled the cup, it’s sealed and sent off to a lab for analyzation.

What Technicians Look For

There are two main types of urine tests: immunoassay (IA) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

In both tests, lab technicians look for biological indicators of drug use.

Rather than looking for active compounds, they look for byproducts of the substance. When a person does drugs, their body turns the drugs into metabolites. 

Thus, urine samples indicate drug use through increased metabolites related to substances. They store in cells such as hair, fat, and nails. 

How long metabolites stay in a person’s system depends on their fat content, hydration, urine pH, and details of drug use.

GC-MS is less common and is normally a confirmation to IA tests. They can show exactly what drugs are in a person’s system and the quantity that’s present.

Although urinalysis is accurate, many people feel they are too invasive. This brings us to the second drug test in question: saliva drug tests.

Saliva Drug Tests

Saliva tests, or mouth swabs, are less invasive. Additionally, it’s less likely that the subject can alter the sample, as the person administering the test does the swab.

The administer places a collection pad next to the lower gums pressing the inner cheek. It’s left there for two minutes without motion.

If the test isn’t done properly, results may vary or be incorrect.

Once the two minutes are up, it’s placed in a sealed container and sent to a lab for analyzation.

What Technicians Look For

Lab technicians look at the psychoactive elements of substances that are in the sample left over from substance use.

This analysis is the closest measure available for intoxication or impairment.

Psychoactive elements remain in the system for a shorter period of time than metabolites. This gives saliva tests a shorter window of inspection.

However, a saliva test shows drug use just hours before the test, while urine tests don’t. This is because the body hasn’t had time to turn the substance into metabolites.

Take Action

Now that you know how these drug tests work, you can make an informed decision about which test fits your needs.

Testing for substance abuse can help you help those around you. If you’re thinking about testing employees, read how to choose the best test for your business.


Order a Test

Whether you are an individual looking to get a drug test done today or an employer looking to get a pre-employment drug test done today, ordering a test online is easier than ever! Just submit your order online, receive your test authorization by email, go to your local clinic to be tested, and receive your test results in 24 to 48 hours.

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Monday 8AM–12PM, 1–4:30PM
Tuesday 8AM–12PM, 1–4:30PM
Wednesday 8AM–12PM, 1–4:30PM
Thursday 8AM–12PM, 1–4:30PM
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Sunday Closed

Closed Dec. 25, Dec. 26 and Jan. 1

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact our lab.