What Are Drug Tests Looking For?

How Do Drug Tests Actually Work?

How Do Drug Tests Actually Work?

Drug testing is an unfortunate fact of life. It is most commonly used for testing athletes, job applicants, and when there is trouble with the law. The following information outlines how drug tests actually work from a technical point of view.

Screening Test

The most common form of test is the screening test. This method uses antibodies much in the same way our immune systems do to identify and latch onto certain substances. Antibodies are made from 4 protein chains that create a “Y” shape. The end of the arms of the Y vary in shape from antibody to antibody. The idea is that when a white blood cell comes across a foreign object within the body, the antibodies with the cells try and latch onto it with their varying shapes. If the shape is correct, it will latch on and the white blood cell will produce many more of the same shaped antibody to swarm and neutralise the foreign entity.

Antibodies are used in the same ways by scientists to detect drugs. When a scientist has an antibody specific to what they are looking for, they can perform an ELISA test. This basically involves attaching the antibodies to the bottom of a special plate and washing the sample in question over it. After a while, if any of the drugs being looked for are present, they will latched onto by the antibodies and held in place.

Next the plate is washed to remove the remaining excess material, leaving everything of interest behind. More anti bodies are then added, ensuring that the substance being looked for is completely surrounded. Once this is the case, a secondary antibody is added that is a lot more general in nature. This more general antibody will have been engineered to have an enzyme that produces colour in it, as well as to latch onto the other, primary antibodies already present.

Lastly, a substance that changes colour in the presence of the enzyme held within the secondary antibody is added. If the substance changes colour, it indicates to the scientists that the drugs they were looking for have been captured by the antibodies within the sample.

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Confirmation Test

The confirmation test is a much more advanced and expensive way of testing for drugs. It is usually done with one of two methods. These are gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.

Gas chromatography forces the components within the sample to separate, making them easily identifiable by passing them through a narrow column with inert gas at a high pressure.

Mass spectrometry is a method that bombards the molecules of the sample with electrons, forcing it to break up. Each molecule has a specific way it breaks, effectively causing it to have a unique identifier or “fingerprint”. This allows scientists to identify drugs as they break apart.

What Are Drug Tests Looking For?

What Are Drug Tests Looking For?

There are 3 common types of drug tests used. These are: the Standard 5 Panel Drug Test (we have it here!), the Extended Drug Test, and Additional Testables.

Basic tests such as the 5 Panel test, are the most common form and screen for the most „popular“ illegal substances. These are:

  • Cannabinoids (found in cannabis substances)
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines (including but not exclusive to speed, MDMA and meth)
  • Opiates (including but not exclusive to heroine, opium, morphine and codeine)
  • PCP

5-Panel Drug Test CardView Product

In some circumstances the tester will want to be very thorough, for example when testing athletes. In this situation an Expanded Drug Test will be used. This test searches for all of the drugs in the standard test in addition to the following:

  • Ethanol (including but not exclusive to alcoholic drinks and ethyl alcohol)
  • Hallucinogens
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines (including but not exclusive to tranquilisers such as valium and librium)
  • Anabolic steroids (muscle building hormones)
  • Inhalants (including but not exclusive to solvents, paints etc.)

Additional testable’s are very rarely looked for and tend to be rare and very specific in nature. These will usually look for the following:

  • LSD
  • Tryptamines
  • Phenethylamines
  • Inhalants

Methods Of Sample Collection

Methods Of Sample Collection

There are 5 primary ways in which drug tests can be conducted, using different products of the body.

  • Urine

This is the most common and cost effective way that drugs are tested for. It is primarily used to test for drug use within the last week, but some things, such as cannabis, stay detectable for longer. Because of the nature of what is being tested, urine tests are seen as fairly intrusive, even though it is the most used method for job screening. It is possible to get immediate results, but the sample needs to be sent to a lab for accuracy.

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  • Saliva

Saliva drug testing is a growing trend as it is considered less intrusive than a urine test, and a sample is relatively easy to take on the spot without giving the tested person time alone to tamper with it. Saliva tests are also better at detecting more recent use than its other counterparts. They do tend to be slightly more expensive than urine tests and require the samples to be sent to a lab for results.

  • Hair

Drug tests using hair are seen as not being intrusive, but cost substantially more than a urine or saliva test. They are not only more accurate than urine tests, but also they are also better than urine or saliva tests at detecting drug use from a longer period of time, nor are they really affected by periods of abstinence from drugs; however, hair tests are not very effective at recognising very recent use. It is also worth noting that the test cannot be done from one hair, a fairly large sample is required.

  • Sweat

Sweat tests are relatively new and still fairly uncommon. They require the person being tested to wear a patch for an extended period of time, which is considered fairly intrusive. The accuracy of using sweat for drug tests has also been called into question, as it is possible for the patch to become contaminated.

  • Blood

Drug tests using blood are the most accurate, most expensive and most intrusive. There is very little doubt in the result if blood is used. However, it is very rare for this to happen because of invasive nature of collecting blood samples and the large cost involved. It is only really used for serious instances, where there can be no doubt or risk of the person being tested using drugs, such as in the case of professional athletes.

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