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Updated on November 11, 2022
5 min read

Mouth Swab (Saliva) Drug Testing

What is a Saliva Drug Test?

Saliva drug tests use a sample of someone’s saliva to test for certain drugs in the body. This test is sometimes called a mouth swab or oral drug test.

A mouth swab drug test is one of the most convenient and least invasive screening methods for detecting substances in someone’s system. 

It’s often used for pre-employment or workplace drug testing. But it can also be used in drug rehabilitation programs. 

The results are just as accurate as urine tests. However, the tests are less invasive because only oral fluid samples are collected.

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How Long are Drugs Detectable in Saliva Tests?

Several factors influence how long substances stay in the saliva. An important factor is the frequency of drug use. The detection windows for different drugs are as follows:

  • Alcohol: 6 to 12 hours
  • Benzodiazepines: up to 5 days
  • Cocaine: up to 24 hours
  • Heroin: 2 to 24 hours
  • THC (marijuana and cannabis): 2 to 24 hours
  • Methamphetamine: 6 to 76 hours
  • MDMA: 1 to 24 hours
  • Opiates: 7 to 21 hours

These detection windows are shorter for some drugs than they are for others. However, some drugs remain in the saliva longer than they do in blood or urine. 

For this reason, the type of drug in question could affect which oral drug tests are ordered. If your employer is trying to detect alcohol, they’ll need to test sooner than they would for benzodiazepines

How Long Does it Take to Get Results?

The time it takes to get your results from a mouth swab depends on the type of test used. Some mouth swab tests require lab analysis, while others can be interpreted on-site.

If your mouth swab needs to be sent to a lab, you can expect results within 24 hours. On the other hand, a test that can be interpreted on-site can take a few minutes.

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How Does a Saliva Test Work? 

A swab is used to collect saliva from the mouth and inside of the cheek during a saliva drug test. 

A technician puts the swab inside the test subject’s mouth and rubs it around to collect the sample. This sample is then tested to detect specific substances.

What Drugs Can Be Detected in a Saliva Test?

Saliva tests detect a variety of substances, including:

  • Cannabinoids
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Methamphetamine
  • Opiates
  • Phencyclidine
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Methaqualone
  • Methadone
  • Propoxyphene

How many drugs are detectable depends on the specific test. For example, a 6-panel oral test detects fewer substances than a 10-panel test.

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How Accurate are Mouth Swab Drug Tests? 

When done correctly, a mouth swab can be relatively accurate. The accuracy of most swab tests is 97.5 percent.7 However, there are a few factors that can affect its accuracy:

  • The type of test
  • The type of substance
  • The concentration of the substance
  • The skill and abilities of the person administering the test
  • Quality of the testing facility
  • Quality of the testing device
  • The detection window of a specific drug

Benefits of Saliva Testing

Benefits of saliva testing include:

  • Accurate results
  • Non-invasive method
  • Convenient
  • Pain-free
  • Rapid results
  • Easy to administer
  • Tests for a variety of substances
  • Costs less than urine and blood testing

Mouth swabs are also typically conducted by an administrator or under supervision. This makes it more difficult to tamper with the specimen.

What are the Limitations?

Drawbacks of oral drug testing include:

  • Testing window is less than with other methods
  • Certain medications interfere with the results
  • Some substances are undetectable
  • Mouthwash and some foods alter results
  • Inadequate saliva from dry mouth can interfere with the testing sample

Which is Better: Saliva or Urine Drug Test?

When comparing saliva and urine drug tests, no method is generally better. What is best for one situation might not be the right option for another.

When choosing between a saliva test or another option, consider:

  • Cost (saliva is less expensive)
  • Convenience (saliva is fast and easy)
  • Need for supervision (it’s easier and less invasive to supervise a saliva test than a urine test)

All types of testing methods are safe and effective. Choosing the best method depends on the company's or an individual's budget, preferences, and specific needs. 

Pros and Cons of Saliva Drug Tests

Saliva tests offer a variety of benefits, but there are also drawbacks to this type of drug testing. 

Pros of saliva drug tests include:

  • Wide range of detectable substances
  • Rapid results
  • Non-invasive testing method that collects a sample with a minor invasion of privacy
  • Easy to collect samples
  • Low level of risk of exposure to something hazardous
  • Low level of emotional and physical stress to submit the sample

Cons of saliva drug testing include:

  • Short window of detection
  • Results can be skewed by food and mouthwash
  • Easy to contaminate the sample

What to Expect Before, During & After Mouth Swab Tests

Before taking a saliva drug test, it’s important to avoid eating or drinking for at least 10 minutes. During the test, you’ll need to keep your mouth open to allow the technician to swab the inside of your mouth.

After the test, the sample should be protected from contamination and stored properly until it can be assessed. Once you receive the test results, you’ll want to check the name and identification number to verify that it is your test.

If you doubt your test results, you can ask to review the test results and/or undergo a follow-up test.

How Much Does a Saliva Drug Test Cost?

Saliva tests are an affordable option for drug testing. However, how much more affordable saliva tests depend on the specific testing methods used and the number of substances detected. 

Most saliva tests range from $60 to $120 (depending on how many drugs can be detected).

Who pays for the test varies from situation to situation. Some employers pay to have employees and applicants tested. 

The same is true for rehabilitation facilities. In some cases, subjects must pay testing fees, especially if ongoing testing is required.

Summary

Mouth swabs are easy to use, cost-effective, and hard to tamper with. The results are just as accurate as other tests while being more convenient and non-invasive.

There are a variety of substances that a swab test can detect. A substance can be detectable in your saliva within 12 hours or 5 days, depending on the substance.

Although a saliva test is efficient and accurate, it has limitations. It's also important to understand that the best test for you depends on your needs, preference, and budget.

Call to find out how much your insurance will cover
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Updated on November 11, 2022
7 sources cited
Updated on November 11, 2022
  1. Ducker, Garret. “Drug Testing.” Samhsa.gov, 2015.
  2. Lias, Courtney. “FDA Regulation of Drugs of Abuse Tests” SAMHSA DTAB Meeting Office of in Vitro Diagnostic Device Evaluation and Safety Center for Devices and Radiological Health US Food and Drug Administration. 2016.
  3. Drug Testing: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information.” Medlineplus.gov, 2017.
  4. How to Understand Your Lab Results: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information.” Medlineplus.gov, 2020.
  5. Urine Drug Testing.” CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016.
  6. COVID-19 Saliva Tests: What Is the Benefit?” Mayo Clinic, 2020.
  7. Krotulski, A. et al. "Field Detection of Drugs of Abuse in Oral Fluid Using the Alere™ DDS®2 Mobile Test System with Confirmation by Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC–MS/MS)" Journal of Analytical Toxicology, 2018.

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