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Drug and Alcohol Swab Test – What Is It And How Is It Conducted?

08 November, 2023

A man getting swabbed by a technician

A drug and alcohol swab test is a testing procedure for detecting impairing substances through oral fluids. It is a non-invasive method of testing and provides high accuracy. The test collects saliva samples through a collection stick to determine the presence of illicit drugs and alcohol. Therefore, it can identify if a person has taken substances for several hours prior to testing. This method is common in various settings, such as roadside, healthcare, and workplace screening.

Drug and alcohol abuse can have devastating effects on the health, relationships, and overall well-being of an individual. Moreover, it can pose safety risks not just to the person but also to others. In order to promote safety and ensure a drug-free environment, many institutions use a mouth swab substance test to detect impairment. This article will provide an overview of the saliva drug tests, their process, and their accuracy rate.

What is a Drug and Alcohol Swab Test

A drug and alcohol swab test is a process of obtaining a sample of saliva or oral fluid to check for traces of substances in the system. The test uses antibodies or immunoassays to analyse the sample. The results are immediate and can identify if a person has taken drugs or alcohol in the past few hours.

This method is simple and suitable for on-site testing. The ease of use and convenience of saliva testing make it a preferred option by many individuals. Additionally, a saliva drug test kit can give the results after a few minutes. On the other hand, some may require sending the sample to an accredited laboratory for analysis.

The test is common in various settings, such as workplaces, schools, and law enforcement agencies. They are often conducted as part of alcohol and drug testing programs to monitor substance abuse. It is convenient in random testing and post-incident and when there is suspicion of drug and alcohol use. These tests are quick, efficient, and provide accurate results, making them a reliable choice for screening purposes.

Substances that Can Be Detected

  • Marijuana – one of the most commonly abused drugs. The test detects the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabinoids.
  • Cocaine – a powerful stimulant drug derived from the coca plant. It is used for its euphoric effects but has the risk of physical and psychological dependence and overdose.
  • Amphetamines – a synthetic stimulant often abused by individuals to become more alert and have more energy.
  • Opioids – a class of drugs with pain-relieving properties. Examples are heroin, codeine, and morphine.
  • Ethanol – a legal substance found in alcoholic beverages. It is a depressant that impairs judgment, coordination, balance, and reaction time.

A drug test result form covered by pills

Sample Collection Procedure of a Drug and Alcohol Swab Test

The process of a drug and alcohol swab test involves the collection of an oral fluid sample followed by its analysis. The collection procedure involves the use of a swab or sponge. The collector inserts the swab into the mouth and rubs the inner cheek. It is vital to ensure that the sample covers all areas inside the mouth, including the tongue and gums.

The swab is then placed in a collection tube or container and is carefully sealed to prevent any tampering or contamination of the sample. After the collection, the conductor labels the sample with the identification information of the person and sends it to a laboratory for analysis. In the laboratory, it undergoes various testing methods to measure the concentration of drugs or alcohol.

On the other hand, Point-of-Collection Test (POCT) kits can return the results in 10 to 15 minutes. Test administrators or technicians follow specific collection techniques to ensure the integrity of the sample. They must also handle the specimen correctly and avoid extreme temperatures or environments.

Detection Window and Cut-Off Levels

Saliva contains traces of drugs and alcohol that can indicate recent use. The detection times of substances in oral fluids range between 12 to 48 hours. Moreover, the cut-off level is the threshold for the presence of a drug to be considered positive. This depends on the type of substance or drug class and metabolism range.

For example, marijuana is traceable for up to 24 hours after use, while alcohol is for 12 hours. The more amount a person consumes, the longer it stays in the system. Generally, saliva or oral fluids provide a shorter detection time compared to urine samples.

Three lab technicians analysing samples

Accuracy of Results of a Drug and Alcohol Swab Test

The results of a drug and alcohol swab test are reliable. However, several factors may affect the accuracy of the test. This includes the sensitivity of the saliva drug testing kit itself. Different test kits may have varying cut-off concentrations, which may lead to a positive result for some while negative for others.

It is advisable to use certified (AS/NZ Standards) drug test kits to minimise variations. These devices ensure consistency in the test procedure. Furthermore, collectors follow a strict chain of custody protocols. In addition, saliva tests may be susceptible to contamination. It includes the presence of interfering substances. Thus, the person is asked to rinse the mouth with water to remove potential contaminants.

Inaccuracies may also arise due to environmental factors or mishandling of the samples. A saliva sample should be stored in the recommended temperature range and secured against external particles. Hence, it is essential to employ trained personnel and proper collection techniques for reliable and valid results.

Is There a Possibility of a False Positive Result

False positive results may occur in a mouth swab drug test. It may happen for various reasons, such as technical errors, cross-reactivity, and misinterpretation of results. For instance, certain legal medications may contain substances that can yield positive results. Thus, undergoing a confirmatory laboratory procedure is vital to minimise false positives.

A positive test result can have serious implications. It can affect pre-employment decisions or the careers of current employees. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure the test procedures follow the protocols. Likewise, it is necessary to confirm the results with a laboratory-based method as the gold standard. This can help avoid potential legal issues.

Conclusion

A drug and alcohol swab test is an efficient way to detect recent use of impairing substances. It involves a simple collection process using a swab stick and analysing it using a solution or testing in a laboratory. Saliva tests can trace concentrations of common drugs of abuse and alcohol for up to 24 to 48 hours from the last use. Therefore, it is suitable for monitoring recent consumption or impairment.

The test is generally accurate and reliable. Since the collection process can be done in plain view of the administrator, it minimises the risk of tampering or adulteration. However, various factors may affect the test, which can lead to false positives. This includes improper collection techniques and handling of samples, prescription medications, metabolism rate, and external environments. Thus, it is vital to use certified devices and follow the standard testing procedures.

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