Know Your Tests: The Three Most Common Types of Drug Tests and the Pros & Cons of Each

Far from being an absolute wreck who cannot possibly hold down a job, many drug abusers quite handily hold down full-time or part-time positions while indulging their substance abuse.

According to the 2013 National Study on Drug Use and Health, of the 22.4 million current illicit drug users aged 18 or older in 2013, 15.4 million (68.9%) were employed either full or part time. At least some of those drug users were placed in their jobs by staffing agencies, which obviously doesn’t bode well for those particular agencies. But, by instituting a comprehensive drug testing policy, staffing agencies can avoid the problem of sending potential drug abusers to their clients.

Like everything, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for drug testing. You first need to start with your goals and then formulate a plan for a drug testing program that will allow you to reach those goals while staying within your budget.

Here are the three main types of drug tests, and the pros and cons of each.

Urine Testing

By far the most common type of drug testing, urine testing can be done in one of two ways:

Instant. Instant urine tests are performed on the spot where the samples are collected. They come in various formats, from simple dip cards to all-inclusive testing cups where the test is actually included in the sample collection container.

This type of test is known as an immunoassay test and they work by having the sample interact with a reagent and producing a specific reaction if the presence of drugs or drug metabolites is found.

If an instant test result is positive, the sample still needs to be sent to a laboratory for confirmation.

Laboratory. Samples can either be collected at the workplace or at a designated collection site and shipped to the laboratory, or collected at the laboratory. Once there, the samples will be subjected to the same type of immunoassay test that is performed in an instant testing kit. Any positive results will be retested using much more sophisticated testing techniques, typically gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GS-MS). The reason a laboratory will perform an immunoassay test first is because it is much less expensive than GS-MS.

Pros & Cons

The pros of urine testing are:

  • Can detect drug usage usually up to several days after use (varies depending on the drug)
  • Can detect drug usage about an hour after usage
  • Instant testing is relatively inexpensive
  • Instant testing or sample collection can be performed with minimal training
  • Can test for multiple drugs at once

The cons of urine testing are:

  • Must have proper collection facilities
  • Must have same-gender collectors
  • Easiest to cheat out of the three most common types of testing
  • Have to contend with occasional bout of shy bladder

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Saliva Testing

Sometimes referred to as oral fluid testing, saliva testing can also be performed either with an instant testing kit or in a laboratory. The differences between the two are essentially the same as with urine testing, so there is no need to go over them in detail.

Pros & Cons

The pros of saliva testing are:

  • Can detect drug usage immediately after use
  • Can be performed anywhere without the need for specialized collection facilities
  • Eradicates the need for same-gender collectors
  • Least expensive of the three common types of testing
  • Cannot be cheated as long as the saliva donor is prevented from putting anything in their mouth for 10 minutes prior to donating the sample
  • Can test for multiple drugs at once

The cons of saliva testing are:

Can only detect drug usage for a few hours up to a day or two after use (varies depending on drug)

Hair Testing

While the collection for hair testing can be performed without the need for specialized collection facilities, the tests can only be performed in a laboratory with specialized equipment.

Hair testing requires several dozen strands of hair, collected usually from several different areas around the head, concentrating on the nape of the neck so the collection doesn’t take too much hair from one area. The hair is cut as closely to the scalp as possible and then sent to a laboratory for testing. Collections can also be performed at the laboratory or at a designated collection site. Body hair can also be used.

Without going into too much detail, the laboratory will use sophisticated equipment to liquify the hair particles and then be able to separate this into various components, which includes traces of drug use.

Pros & Cons

The pros of hair testing are:

  • Can detect drug use as far as three months prior to test
  • Can detect the kind of drug and approximately when it was consumed
  • Almost impossible to cheat
  • Collection is minimally invasive and does not require same-gender collectors
  • Collection can be done almost anywhere
  • All tests are carried out by certified technicians in laboratories so minimal chance of error
  • Can test for several drugs at once

The cons of hair testing are:

  • Drug usage cannot be detected until about a week after usage
  • By far the most expensive of the three most common types of testing
  • No instant testing option

Staffing agencies will generally be able to formulate a comprehensive drug testing program by using a combination of instant urine and saliva kits combined with laboratory confirmation of instant positive results. Once you start to gain a reputation for being an agency that drug tests, you’ll not only attract clients who appreciate your dedication to safety, you’ll discourage drug abusers from seeking employment through your agency.

What’s the old saying? Win-win.

MORE: Legalized marijuana — implication for workplaces

Lena Butler

Lena Butler
Lena Butler is a health blogger and customer service representative for TestCountry, a San Diego based point of service diagnostic test service provider that offers a wide range of laboratory and instant drug and general health testing kits.

Lena Butler
Lena Butler is a health blogger and customer service representative for TestCountry, a San Diego based point of service diagnostic test service provider that offers a wide range of laboratory and instant drug and general health testing kits.

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