How Does a Mouth Swab Drug Test Work?

How does a swab drug test work
Drug testing is a common practice for any job, but what’s the science behind it? Read more to learn exactly how a mouth swab drug test works and become informed

Drug use in the United States has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Between 1999 and 2014, heroin use increased by an astounding 439 percent.

This massive increase in the number of Americans abusing drugs has led to tens of thousands of deaths. In 2014 alone, opioids had a hand in 28,647 deaths.

Given this increase in the number of people using drugs, we’re not surprised that more employers are investing in drug tests. And one of the most popular drug tests is the mouth swab drug test.

But how does a mouth swab drug test work? What’s the science behind the technology that discourages drug use among the working population?

We’ll start by answering the most basic question:

How Does a Swab Drug Test Work?

At its core, a mouth swab drug test is simple. The process involves placing an absorbent swab in a recipient’s mouth for the purpose of saliva collection.

The tester need only leave the swab in the recipient’s mouth until enough oral fluid is collected. If a sufficient amount of saliva is not collected the test will not function.

Once the swab is removed and inserted into the base of the device, peel off the display label and results should start to appear in seconds. Now Wait 10 minutes before you record the test results.

There are basically 2 different types of mouth swab testing.

  1.  Instant mouth swab drug test. Provides only preliminary test results.  Results are recorded in 10 minutes. No lab is necessary unless an assumptive positive result occurs. This method saves companies lots of money due to the fact that lab fees are costly and time taking.
  2. Lab mouth swab drug test. Oral fluid is harvested and then transported to a lab for drugs of abuse analysis.

The Science Behind the Test

Okay. So a tester takes a swab of chemical paper and places it into a recipient’s mouth. Why does this process work?

The answer has a lot to do with the chemical makeup of human saliva. Human saliva is 99.5 percent water. The other 0.5 percent consists of substances such as electrolytes and enzymes.

As a result, scientists know which substances they should find in a normal human mouth. So when saliva contains a foreign substance? A drug test can easily identify the anomaly.

And that’s not all.

Many drug tests can identify exactly which foreign substances your saliva contains. They do so by picking up on the metabolites which are present in specific substances.

Alcohol, for example, produces different metabolites than marijuana. Developers can engineer chemical paper to recognize these different metabolites.

What Can the Test Detect?

As you can see, the science behind swab testing for drugs is simple yet effective. Just how many drugs, though, can these tests identify?

The list of drugs they can pick up is endless. Some of the drugs on the list include:

  • Alcohol
  • Cannabis
  • Barbiturates
  • Opiates
  • Cocaine

And that’s the just the abridged version of the list. The full list is much more impressive.

Of course, there’s one caveat here:

Not every test can identify every single drug. For this reason, there are several different types of drug kits on the market. A business or employer need only purchase the correct one.

Fortunately, you don’t have to purchase seven different drug kits to test for seven different drugs. Developers have released many drug kits which can detect the presence of multiple drugs.

How Long Does It Take to Detect These Substances?

If you recall correctly, a mouth swab drug test only takes as long as sticking a piece of paper into someone’s mouth and collecting a saliva sample. That ease, however, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get immediate test results.

Drug test results can take several days to come back. But if an employer opts for a rapid test, the results can come back within 24 hours.

Of course, there are more interesting questions hiding here:

How long do drugs stay in someone’s system? And how effectively can drug tests pick up those drugs over time?

Unfortunately, there isn’t one answer to this question. Different drugs remain in the body for different amounts of time.

Typical painkillers, for instance, can remain traceable for up to three days. Alcohol, on the other hand, might remain traceable for only half a day.

But these estimates are just that: estimates.

Sometimes drugs remain in the system for more or less time. As a result, drug tests may or may not pick up certain foreign substances after some period of time.

Can the Test Fail?

Many people have attempted to thwart drug tests. And some of these people have been successful.

In some cases, their success depended on what type of drug kit their employers used. Urine drug kits, for example, aren’t hard to beat when testers don’t conduct drug tests in totally controlled environments.

Some schools found this out the hard way after they allowed students to go to the bathroom for drug testing in groups. Some of the students simply shared clean urine samples with their drug-using peers.

Sadly, there are clever ways to cheat mouth swab tests as well.

The key to cheating a mouth swab test is understanding the science behind the test. As we said before, human saliva has a standard chemical makeup.

A test subject would only need to introduce a new chemical into his or her mouth to alter that chemical makeup. Some people purchase certain oral products, for instance, beat drug tests. These include special mouthwashes and chewables.

Some test subjects even smoke cigarettes to mask drug use. This tactic works for two reasons:

  1. Cigarettes aren’t illegal drugs. In other words, people are well within their rights to smoke without receiving punishment from their employers.
  2. Tobacco can sometimes mask the presence of other substances on a piece of chemical paper.

Dry Mouth Syndrome

Dry mouth syndrome is a condition in which the salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva to keep the mouth wet. Though this condition won’t make a drug test fail, it can make the process more difficult.

The difficulty lies in collecting enough saliva to create a reaction between the saliva and the chemical paper. Because a dry mouth lacks ample saliva, the test will take longer.

In any case, don’t let the possibility of a drug test failing deter you from investing in drug tests. They’re absolutely necessary if you want to screen for substance abuse and keep your workplace drug-free.

Want to Know More About Drug Tests?

So how does a mouth swab drug test work? Hopefully, we provided an adequate scientific explanation for what makes this drug test effective.

If you want to know more about this specific drug test or any other drug test, just browse our collection of resources. From instant drug tests to drug test myths, we cover all things drug test-related.

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