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Updated on October 17, 2021

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 type of test is sometimes called a mouth swab test 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 purposes or workplace drug testing, but 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.

How Does a Saliva Test Work? 

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

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

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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.

How Long are Drugs Detectable in Saliva Tests?

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 of the 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 Effective are Mouth Swab Drug Tests? 

Oral swab drug testing is effective, but like all test methods, there are pros and cons. 

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

What are the Limitations?

Drawbacks of oral drug testing include:

  • Testing window is less than with other methods
  • Certain medications interfere with 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 it comes to 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 which is best depends on a person’s, medical facility’s, or company’s budget, preferences, and specific needs. 

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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 sample
  • 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 the results of your test, 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 are depends on the specific testing methods used and the number of substances being 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.

Resources

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  1. Ducker, Garret. “Drug Testing.” Samhsa.gov, 22 Oct. 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.
  5. Urine Drug Testing.” CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  6. COVID-19 Saliva Tests: What Is the Benefit?” Mayo Clinic. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/.

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