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5 Toxicology Screening Methods and How They Can Help Save Lives

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Toxicology screens are useful for determining the approximate amount of and type of illegal or legal drugs that are present in the body. Toxicology screening can discover the presence of one drug or a variety of drugs in one testing session.

Toxicology screening can be useful information to screen employees or athletes for drug abuse or organizational banned drugs.

Monitoring a substance abuse problem can be another reason to perform a toxicology screening. There may be a need to monitor a person during their sobriety program, administering such a test regularly to make sure they're clean.

Syringe in Action

Syringe in Action

Doctors will issue a toxicology screening to see if a drug intoxication or overdose has occurred. If doctors see a sign or signs, such as confusion, unconsciousness, chest pain, difficulty breathing, vomiting, seizures, panic attacks, or deliriousness, these may indicate illegal drugs were taken. A toxicology screening can rule out other possible health problems and educate on how best to treat a patient.

Doctors may also administer a toxicology screen when a patient is receiving an organ transplant, a patient may be pregnant and have a history of substance abuse, or in a case where treatment requires pain medicine for a medical condition.

There are several ways a toxicology screen can be conducted. Urine, blood, saliva, hair samples, and stomach contents are samples that can be taken to screen for alcohol, illegal or legal drugs.

Also, it's important to disclose to the doctor or tester if any over-the-counter medicines or supplements have been recently used as these can create false-positive results.

Urine Samples

Urine drug tests usually screen for opioids (narcotics), methadone, cocaine, marijuana, PCP, methadone, barbiturates, methamphetamines, and amphetamines.

Traces of opiates can be detected after a few days of ingestion and marijuana use can be found up to 3 weeks after the actual use.

According to Healthline, There are two types of urine tests, the immunoassay and the gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS).

The immunoassay urine test is cost-effective and results are known quickly. However, this test doesn't reveal all opioids and sometimes the results show false positives even when there was no drug use. This is why, when a positive does occur, it is followed up with the (GC/MS) urine test.

The GC/MS test is done for confirmation. It is more expensive and takes longer to get results. However, it is more accurate in that it rarely gives false positives.

Urine Collection Tube

Urine Collection Tube

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Blood Tests

Blood tests are usually ordered when a person is suspected of being under the influence but needs confirmation.

Blood tests can detect drugs minutes after ingestion and remain in the blood 6 hours to three days for most substances. For example, marijuana traces last up to three weeks in urine but in a blood test, detection of traces will not be possible after 4 hours.

These tests are usually ordered by workplaces, insurance companies, law enforcement, and emergency rooms.

Blood Sample

Blood Sample

Saliva Screening

The most popular saliva drug screening method is the oral swab, in which a sterile swab is placed between the cheek and lower jaw for a couple of minutes to absorb the saliva. Some home kits utilize this method.

Another way to test saliva is to spit in a tube until it is filled to a certain point and send it for testing.

The difference between having a toxicology screening done by saliva rather than urine and blood is that oral swab tests only detect alcohol or drugs used in the past few days, while blood and urine screenings can detect metabolized drugs.

Using marijuana as an example again, marijuana traces can be detected up to 72 hours using this method. For most drugs the window of detection is 1 hour to 4 days. Methadone is an exception in that it can be detected up to 10 days.

A Urine Test Stick

A Urine Test Stick

Hair Follicle Testing

With hair follicle testing, this screening can detect over a period of time what drugs were taken and can answer questions such as, is the drug use intermittent and occasional, or is it ongoing and long-term? Hair sample toxicology screenings can convey whether drug use is addictive or recreational.

Because of the rate of hair growth, this test cannot tell how recently a drug was ingested, and cannot even tell if a drug was ingested five to seven days after the drug was taken. This is because the drugs absorbed in the bloodstream become part of the hair cells as the hair grows.

Most drugs can be detected up to 90 days using the hair follicle method. That's why it's so effective in determining a long time, habitual problem. This test is mostly used in sobriety observation or workplace monitoring.

People with no hair on their heads are not off the hook. Body hair can be used in this case.

Hair Follicle

Hair Follicle

Stomach Content Analysis

If a patient comes into the emergency room and needs a stomach pump or vomits, a toxicology screening of the contents can be done. This is especially helpful if the patient has recently swallowed a drug.

This method would only be effective if the drug was taken orally rather than smoking or injecting. The extracted contents of the stomach can be sifted through to find unabsorbed drug or tablet fragments.

Toxicology can Save Your Life

Toxicology screenings should be looked at as life-saving tools rather than enforcement tools. Whether someone, a child or an adult, ingests a drug, intentionally or not, toxicology screenings can save that life.


Stang, Debra. "Urine Drug Test". Healthline, 29 September 2018,

DerSarkissian, Carol. "What Is a Toxicology Test". WebMD, 10 May 2019,,keep%20your%20recovery%20on%20track.

"How Long Do Drugs Stay In Your System". The Addiction Center,

Hibou, Vincent. "Gastric Content Sampling". Analytical Toxicology,

Sauer, Mary. "Everything You Should Know About a Hair Follicle Drug Test". Healthline, 7 March 2019,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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