I. At-Home Drug Tests

The point of at-home drug testing is simple: it gives you the answers you want in a way that you can control. Whether you suspect that your child is using or you are certain of previous drug use, at-home drug testing can be done easily and accurately from the privacy and convenience of your home. You can choose the type of testing and the drugs you are screening for and, with results in hand, move forward with confidence in your knowledge.

At-home testing can assure you that your child is drug free or confirm your suspicions and help you make important decisions about the type of help or interventions most appropriate for your family.  But knowing what type of test to buy and where to buy it can be intimidating, especially with so many options available.

When you might want to drug test your teen

Deciding to drug test your teen is a big step and one that few parents approach lightly. The most common reasons for doing at-home drug testing include:

  • Concern for changes in your child’s behavior or demeanor: The teen years are fraught with stress for parents and kids alike. Social stressors, peer pressure, and curiosity can lead kids to make bad decisions, and drugs are increasingly accessible. You may decide to drug test your kids after seeing telltale signs, including:
    • Losing interest in favorite activities
    • Switching to a new social group
    • Aggression, irritability, or despondency
    • Excessive sleep
    • Rule-breaking behavior
    • Weight loss
    • Watery, red eyes
    • Nervousness accompanied by shakes or tremors
    • Nosebleeds
  • Required by courts or school: In addition to at-home testing, teens can be required to submit to drug tests administered by their school or as ordered by a court. These tests are generally administered by nurses or court-appointed individuals and conducted at school or in a specified testing environment to ensure testing accuracy and confirm that the sample was properly collected. In a school setting these tests can be conducted randomly, as a requirement for participation in extracurricular activities, or in response to behaviors that give rise to suspicion of drug use. When mandated by the court, testing may be part of a recovery or rehabilitation program, or as a requirement for expungement of court records.

Types of at-home drug tests

Drug testing relies on the analysis of different bodily fluids, proteins, or gases for the presence of trace elements.

  • Urine: Urine is most frequently used for at-home drug testing, as well as in the workplace and schools. Collecting urine is non-invasive, painless, requires no medical expertise or training to administer, and delivers results very quickly. It can be used to detect cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, opiates, alcohol, and even nicotine reveals the presence of drugs shortly after their use.
  • Saliva: Saliva samples can detect recent drug use and deliver very fast results. They can be collected from having your teen spit into a cup or by swabbing the inside of the mouth. They can detect the use of alcohol, cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine within the previous few days, though marijuana use needs to be within the previous ten hours.
  • Hair: Every hair follicle has a blood vessel that sustains its growth, and when drugs are present in the bloodstream traces are absorbed by the hair. Testing hair samples for drugs is easy and non-invasive, but they show evidence of past drug use rather than use in the last few days or hours. Hair tests can detect the use of cocaine, marijuana, opiates, methamphetamine, and phencyclidine (PCP) within a range of between four to five days and 90 days. These tests require at least 1.5” of hair from the scalp for accuracy, with each half-inch of growth reflecting approximately one month. Though negative results can be determined with 24 hours of testing, positive test results take as long as 72 hours.

Blood testing delivers the most reliable and accurate results, but it is invasive and requires a needle stick. Rather than being available via at-home testing, blood testing needs to be conducted by a trained professional such as a phlebotomist in a laboratory. It can detect cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, opiates, methamphetamines, and nicotine, with marijuana use detectable for weeks after use.

Test type Available at home? Typical results time
Urine Yes Less than ten minutes
Hair Yes Negative results are delivered within 24 hours, but non-negative tests take up to 72 hours.
Blood No Tests generally come back within 24 to 48 hours.
Saliva Yes Less than one hour

Where to get at-home drug tests

Access to at-home drug tests is as close as your computer or nearest pharmacy or big-box store. They can easily be purchased from sites like Amazon.com, Walmart.com, or CVS.com, from stores like Rite Aid, CVS, Walmart, and Target, and directly from test manufacturers’ websites. Costs vary depending upon the type of test (urine, hair, or saliva), the drugs being tested for, and the number of tests included in each kit.

II. Limitations of At-Home Drug Tests

Though at-home drug tests are helpful and convenient, they are not perfect and should not be used as definitive proof either of drug use or that drugs are not being used. Parents who suspect that their child is using drugs are faced with the challenge of not being entirely sure what drug to test for, as well as with the brief period that drug traces will remain in urine or saliva. The tests themselves have limited effective dates, and their accuracy can be negatively affected by exposure to high temperatures and other environmental factors.

In addition to the shortcomings of the tests themselves, teens are particularly adept at avoiding detection. The internet and social media are filled with tips and tricks that defeat the accuracy of at-home drug tests.

The factors that have the biggest impact on at-home testing accuracy include:

  • The way that the test was administered
  • The way that the sample was collected or stored
  • Foods, beverages, or medications that the person being tested ate or drank before the test

Despite the potential for false negatives and false positives, at-home testing can provide valuable information. Negative results can indicate that your teen is not using, while positive results can serve as an early warning that intervention is required, or that more definitive results need to be obtained through a physician’s office.

At-home drug tests may not detect all illicit drugs

One clear shortcoming of at-home drug tests is that parents are not certain what drugs they should be testing for. Today’s teens have access to many drugs of abuse, including both illegal substances like cocaine and prescription medications like Oxycontin and other opioids. While some parents considering at-home testing know what drugs to test their teens for, others who fear that their child is “on something” may have no idea what to test for.

To address these concerns, the most useful at-home tests screen for as many as ten of the most frequently abused drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, opioids, and barbiturates. These tests generally use urine samples. They test for:

  • Amphetamines including methamphetamines, speed, and ecstasy
  • Barbiturates including Butalbital, phenobarbital, and secobarbital
  • Benzodiazepines including Alprazolam, clonazepam, and diazepam
  • Cocaine, both the powder version and rock version known as crack
  • Marijuana, specifically its hallucinogenic compound THC
  • Methadone
  • Methaqualone, or quaaludes
  • Opiates including codeine, morphine, opium, and heroin
  • Phencyclidine, popularly known as PCP or angel dust
  • Propoxyphene, sold under the brand name Darvocet

Though the drug detection time for each of these substances varies, in most cases the 10-panel tests detect drug use from two-to-three days before the test to 10-to-15 days before the test and up to 30 days for marijuana use.

At-home drug tests may produce a false positive

A positive result to an at-home drug test creates a rush of emotions, but parents need to remember that these tests are not foolproof and can produce false positives. We’ve all heard anecdotes about positive results following consumption of poppy-seed bagels, and those are not urban myths: they happen, and people have lost their jobs and suffered other serious consequences as a result. When testing your teen, be mindful of this possibility and have a plan for further testing in response to a positive response rather than immediately reacting.

Innocent substances can lead to a false positive from an at-home drug test, including:

  • Ibuprofen
  • Cold medicine
  • Antihistamines
  • Nasal decongestants
  • Diet pills
  • Sleep aids
  • Poppy seeds
  • Hemp food products/CBD products

At-home drug tests may produce a false negative

Parents considering drug testing their kids must also face the reality that a teen motivated by the fear of consequences will attempt to avoid a positive result. There are countless websites and social media threads filled with advice on generating false negatives, with methods ranging from purchasing urine (synthetic or from a peer) to drinking bleach. The creativity dedicated to fraudulently passing drug tests can have tragic results, as the more a teen tries to avoid being caught, the greater their drug abuse problem may be.

Detection depends on drug clearance rates

Being able to successfully and accurately determine whether your teen is using drugs depends on many factors, including the accuracy of the test you use, the way that you do the test, what your teen ate or drank before taking the test, and the amount of time that has passed between the suspected drug use and when the test has been given. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, each drug has a different period for how soon after it has been used it can be detected and how long after it has been used it will continue to be detectable via an at-home test.  The chart below provides estimates for the drugs that are most commonly tested for.

Drug type How soon after use it can be detected How long after use it can be detected
Barbiturates Two to four hours One to three weeks
Benzodiazepine Two to seven hours One to four days
Oxycodone One to three hours One to two days
Marijuana/cannabis One to three hours One to seven days
Crack/cocaine Two to six hours Two to three days
Heroin/opiates Two to six hours One to three days
Amphetamines/methamphetamine Four to six hours Two to three days
Angel Dust/PCP Four to six hours Seven to fourteen days
Methadone Three to eight hours One to three days
Ecstasy Two to seven hours Two to four days

III. What to do if Your Child Tests Positive for Drugs

When facing any kind of crisis, the most important and useful thing to do is to remain calm. False positives are a possibility, so arrange to have a re-test done professionally —  especially if this is your first test. At the same time, you need to discuss the test results with your child, keeping in mind that your goal is a conversation rather than a confrontation.

The Council on Alcohol and Drugs suggests informing your child of the positive result and that you plan to send their test results to a professional laboratory for review. At this point, they may confirm their drug use – which avoids the need for retesting and invites a discussion about next steps — or deny it, in which case your approach of seeking confirmation from an outside source will send a strong message that you are open to their side of the story.

If a positive test is confirmed, it may be time to seek outside help. Your pediatrician is one of the best resources to start with, as they combine knowledge and experience with an already-existing relationship with your child. Pediatricians have numerous screening tools available to them, including confidential interviews and questionnaires, which they will use to assess the appropriate degree of concern and whether further intervention is needed.

If conversations between you, your teen, and your pediatrician lead to the conclusion that your child needs more help than you can provide, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website offers a behavioral health treatment services locator to help find local treatment centers and specialists confidentially and anonymously.

IV. How Drug Testing Can Affect Your Parent-Child Relationship

There are good reasons why so many parents approach the teen years with dread. In addition to all of the changes your child is experiencing in their body and their brain, they are also facing social challenges that can easily lead to drug use. Your interest in at-home drug testing is meant to keep your child safe and help them to make good decisions, but it can easily backfire if your child views it as an invasion of their privacy, an indication of lack of trust, or a violation of their rights.

The first step to using at-home drug testing for your teen is to have an open and honest conversation. If you have a partner with whom you share parenting responsibilities, prepare by making sure that you are both in agreement about your approach and position, then explain your concerns, as well as your reason for considering testing. You may want to use the test as a deterrent and protective measure, or based upon physical or behavioral evidence of drug use that you are acting upon. Remain calm and set realistic goals, rules, and consequences for positive test results, and above all be sure that you have their cooperation in taking the tests.

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) has taken an instead of having difficult conversations with their teens.

Other experts, including David Evans, special advisor to the Drug Free America Foundation, advocates for parents drug testing their teens and suggests, “Give them a heads up. You want to deter the behavior; you don’t want to catch them.”

V. Resources for At-Home Drug Testing

At-home drug tests are a valuable tool for parents trying to keep their kids safe by protecting them from the dangers of drug abuse, but their use presents many questions and considerations. The resources listed below can help you as you navigate this difficult phase of parenting, guiding the ethics of at-home drug testing, the best way to approach your teen about drugs, and resources available to help you with intervention and treatment.

  • HealthyChildren.org is a parenting website established by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The site’s teen section devotes a significant amount of content to substance abuse, including a section on drug abuse prevention, home drug testing, helping teens resist pressure to try drugs, and treatment and intervention strategies.
  • The Council on Alcohol and Drugs: A non-profit agency whose mission is the prevention of substance abuse and its related problems at home, school and work with proven, practical resources, prevention education, and advocacy. Their website is a premier resource for substance abuse prevention and education for communities and families.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a mission of reducing the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. Its website offers information on finding treatment, teen drug use, and coping strategies for families.
  • The Partnership to End Addiction is a collaboration of two addiction-focused organizations – the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Together they deliver solutions directly to individuals and families facing addiction issues, including the ability to connect with a specialist who can help parents find the personalized support and services that they need.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse is part of the National Institute of Health. Its website offers a section dedicated to teens, including the health effects and consequences of teen drug use and the signs of teen addiction.

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