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 way.

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 occurs.

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 well.

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:

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 results.

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 depression.

Look for

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

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.


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 program.

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 program.