Home Drug Testing: What Parents Need to Know

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Despite some bright spots, national
statistics on illicit drug use are alarming.

More than a third of US high school students have
tried an inhalant or illicit drug by the time they are in eighth grade. More
than half use an illegal drug by the time they finish high school. Eighty
percent of today’s high school students have used alcohol.

So if your teen suddenly becomes moody, is spending
time with a different group of friends, or starts failing in school, you may
wonder if drugs are to blame.

Medically testing your teen for drug use may seem
like a straightforward way to get an answer. But it probably is not the best

Drug tests are not always reliable, and your teen
may resent being tested. Other methods may be better. Through confidential
interviews and questionnaires, your pediatrician can help assess whether your
teen has a drug problem without resorting to lab tests.

If your teen does undergo a drug test, it should be
voluntary. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) opposes involuntary drug
tests. Consult your pediatrician if you believe your teen should be tested for
drug use.

Types of drug testing

Drug tests most commonly analyze urine. However,
many body tissues and fluids can be tested for drug use. Hair, saliva, nails,
and sweat are among them. Some of these alternatives show promise. For example,
hair tests are difficult to fool and may reveal drug use months after it

But hair tests are fairly new and do not detect
recent drug use. Hair color and type or secondhand marijuana smoke also may skew
hair test results. Saliva, nail, and sweat testing need to be refined as

Limits of urine drug testing

A chemical analysis of urine—or
urinalysis—is the most common drug test. But the test has limits and
parents should consider the following pitfalls:

  • Test may not detect all illicit
    Most routine urine tests do not catch LSD, ketamine,
    Ecstasy, inhalant, or anabolic steroid use. They also may not detect
    alcohol, the substance that teens are most likely to use.

  • Test results may be false
    Other drugs are detectable for only a short time
    after they are used. Most drugs—other than marijuana—can
    be flushed from the user’s system in as few as 12 hours. Within 2
    or 3 days, these drugs are almost always undetectable.

    Teens also may try to
    “cheat” on a urine test. They might dilute their urine
    samples with tap or toilet water, or drink a lot of water before the
    test to flush drugs from their systems. Some users buy products designed
    to beat the test at nutritional supplement stores or through the

  • Test results may be false
    Urine tests that do detect drug use may be
    misleading and should be confirmed by more specific tests.

    For instance, routine urine test results
    may show marijuana use days—or even weeks—after your teen
    has quit using the drug. Some drug tests may mistake traces of legal
    painkillers containing ibuprofen or naproxen for signs of marijuana

    Sinus or allergy medicines may show up
    as amphetamines in drug tests. Other common medicines can test as

    The poppy seeds baked into many foods
    can cause false positives for opiate use. Some antibiotics also may show
    up as opiates in tests.

    Keep these possibilities in mind if your
    teen does take a drug test. Consider the test a preliminary screen. Most
    importantly, seek additional lab tests to confirm any positive

    While further analysis can almost always
    pinpoint the cause of a positive drug test, it may take days or weeks to
    complete. Meanwhile, remember that your teen may be bearing the brunt of
    false suspicion—so try to avoid jumping to conclusions until all
    the results are in.

  • Testing may damage the
    pediatrician-patient relationship.
    Involuntary drug testing
    may undermine your teen’s trust in your pediatrician. Even
    results showing no drug use can be harmful if your teen feels coerced
    into the test. If your teen does use drugs, trust in your pediatrician
    is vital to successful substance abuse treatment.

When drug testing may be helpful

The court system or your teen’s school
may require a drug test. While still a controversial policy, many schools screen
young athletes for drug use. Some private schools test all their students.

Urine tests also may help teens who are
receiving drug treatment stay away from drugs.

If drug testing is called for, you and your
pediatrician should work together to ensure you get reliable lab results. Make
sure your teen’s sample is carefully collected and handled by an
experienced, certified laboratory. Guard against human error or false positives.
Be certain the results are properly recorded and kept confidential.

Finally, remember that a lab test is just one
measure of drug use. Your pediatrician also will take into account your
teen’s behavior as a whole.

Is home drug testing advisable?

You can buy home drug testing kits at pharmacies
or through the Internet. But home test kits also may give false or deceptive

Accurate or not, the test can create hard
feelings. Your teen may resent what seems to be a clear sign of distrust and
become less open with you. Or anger could turn to rebellion. At the least, a
resentful teen is less likely to turn to you for the emotional support that
helps deter drug use.

Without a drug test, how can I tell if my teen is using drugs?

Certain symptoms and behaviors are red flags for
drug use. But keep in mind they may also indicate other problems, such as

Look for

  • Alcohol, smoke, or other chemical odors
    on your teen’s breath or clothing

  • Obvious intoxication, dizziness, or
    bizarre behavior

  • Changes in dress and grooming

  • Changes in choice of friends

  • Frequent arguments, sudden mood changes,
    and unexplained violent actions

  • Changes in eating and sleeping

  • Loss of interest in activities

  • Truancy

  • Failing grades

  • Runaway and delinquent behavior

  • Suicide attempts

How your pediatrician can help

Your pediatrician may be able to identify drug
use by interviewing your teen. Though you may want to participate, let the
doctor talk to your teen alone and in strict confidence.

Privacy is crucial. One-on-one talks are most
likely to produce the honest answers from your teen that you need.

Teens also want to know their answers to drug
use questions will remain confidential. Your pediatrician will respect your
child’s privacy, but will tell both of you up front that a breach of
confidentiality could occur if

  • Your teen requires parental

  • Your teen agrees to your request for

  • Your teen lies to your pediatrician.

  • Your pediatrician believes your teen may
    come to harm or harm someone else.

Do not worry that you will be kept in the dark
about a serious problem. Your pediatrician will tell you if your teen is at
immediate risk.


Below is a list of Internet sites that focus on
substance abuse. This list is not comprehensive, but includes sites with links
to other resources.

  • National Institute on Drug
    a division of the National Institutes of Health


  • For Real, sponsored by the
    Center for Substance Abuse Prevention


  • Parenting is Prevention,
    sponsored by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention


  • American Council for Drug Education


  • National Clearinghouse for Alcohol
    and Drug Information,
    sponsored by the Center for Substance
    Abuse Prevention


  • Medem, founded by the
    American Academy of Pediatrics and other national medical societies



Some teens can stop using drugs based on a
strong personal desire to change their lives, and little else. Others stop using
drugs when they learn about the risks and potential costs of substance abuse.
Many youths stop using alcohol or drugs as they reach late adolescence.

But sometimes teens need outside help to quit.
Your pediatrician can help you find the right counseling and treatment. That may
mean psychiatric treatment. Or it may mean a referral to a detoxification

Teen drug use is a serious problem. You do not
have to handle it alone. Do not be afraid to seek professional help from your
pediatrician, a counselor, support group, or treatment program. They can help
you provide the support that is so crucial to the success of any treatment