How Long Does a Drug Test Take?

Female Pathologist and Technician Examining Test Tube Sample
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Drug testing is common enough that the process is streamlined and straightforward. The individual provides a biological sample; usually, these comprise urine, hair or blood. Generally, tests are standardized and cost-effective. Results should be available within a few days or a week at the most.

Why Drug Tests Are Needed

You may be asked to take a drug test in any number of situations ‒ by a prospective or current employer, a doctor, or even an athletic coach. Drug testing checks your body chemistry to determine whether you’ve taken any prescription or illegal drugs within a short time frame, usually a couple weeks.

Checking for illegal drug use is part of the hiring process at many major American corporations, and most athletic events require participants to test for performance-enhancing drugs before they may compete. Even prescription drugs can be abused and overused, and they too may be monitored. Combined, these have helped make drug testing easy and affordable.

Read More: How Do Drug Tests Work?

Drug Test Result Timeline

Delivery of results depends on the type of testing done as well. Alcohol levels from a breath test show up instantly. Urine sample results can be returned within a matter of hours, while blood samples can take anywhere from two to four days. Hair sampling can take two to five days to return a result.

The timing will also vary depending on whether the testing equipment is on-site or if the samples must be shipped to an off-site lab. The nurses who administer the sampling will be able to give additional information as to when results can be expected.

Location of Drug Test Analyzer

If the analyzer is on the same site where the sample was taken, drug test results can be obtained in a matter of hours if circumstances are agreeable. Most companies will retest in the case of a positive result to be sure the positive flag is accurate. Many companies also offer online access to an individual’s drug results. They can set up an account, which allows them to see the details of their results as soon as they are posted.

  • Quest Diagnostics, a popular medical testing corporation, can return test results within 24 hours if negative and 72 hours if positive. Quest Diagnostics offers an online portal through which patients can access their own results. 
  • LabCorp, another well-known testing company, can deliver results to the doctor within 24 hours, and it will post results to the online portal within two to seven days. 

These return times are based on the urine drug test, since this is the most common of all the drug tests. In most cases, individuals can expect to see results from their drug tests within a week at maximum.

How Are Drug Tests Conducted?

The request for a drug test can come from an employer, a doctor or another authority figure. In most cases, a prospective or current employer will have an existing relationship with a medical laboratory. The individual can simply walk in, and the lab will take care of the procedure.

Doctors often have the same types of relationships, or they will give the individual a paper with the orders for the drug test, which the individual can then take to a medical lab corporation that’s covered by their insurance. These medical testing facilities perform the tests in a professional manner.

Urine Drug Tests

The most common type of drug test is a urine test, in which the individual provides a urine sample that is then tested for a range of drugs, both illegal and prescription. The standard way of running a urine drug test is quick and economically sensible, but it can occasionally return a false positive. If the results are questioned, the urine sample can then be run through a GC-MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry), which gives a much more precise result and can detect a number of different substances. The urine drug test can detect a number of drugs, including:

  • Alcohol.
  • Amphetamines.
  • Barbiturates.
  • Benzodiazepines.
  • Cocaine.
  • Marijuana.
  • Methamphetamine.
  • Opioids.
  • PCP.
  • Steroids.

A urine drug test looks for residual chemicals that come from the body’s processing of these drugs, which means the test can detect substances that are no longer active. Depending on the chemical in question, this means urine tests can detect substances that were used days to weeks before the actual test.

Blood Drug Tests

A blood test uses a sample of blood pulled from the individual to determine whether they are actively on any drugs at the time. Most drugs show up in the bloodstream immediately, so if an individual is suspected to be under the influence, a blood test can confirm it. Blood testing is more complicated, more expensive and more invasive than other kinds of drug tests, so they are not nearly as common as urine testing or other methods. A blood drug test can detect all the drugs listed in addition to:

  • LSD.
  • Phencyclidine.
  • Oxycodone.
  • Methadone.
  • Fentanyl.
  • A number of other opiate-type painkiller drug compounds.

Breath Drug Testing

Some situations may require other kinds of drug testing as well. Breath testing is a quick and simple way to detect an individual’s blood alcohol content to detect impairment from alcohol. A hair sample may be used to examine past drug use up to 90 days prior to the test. These tests may be used alongside each other as the situation warrants.

Preparing for a Drug Test

Obviously, the best way to prepare for a drug test is to stop taking illegal drugs and to take prescription drugs only as ordered. However, you can do a few things to help the drug testing process go more smoothly. You’ll want to tell the lab about any medications or supplements you take, whether on doctor’s orders or your own, to make sure nothing interferes with the test results. If you take prescribed drugs that might flag the test, like opiates or oxycodone, disclose it to the lab ahead of time.

If a urine test is scheduled, be sure to drink water the night before and the morning before so that an adequate urine sample can be obtained without issue. Too much fluid can dilute the urine sample, which will require retesting, so drink water in moderation. In very strict cases, a lab employee may be required to observe the urine sampling to ensure legitimacy, so be prepared.

Some blood tests require the individual to fast for 12 hours beforehand. Although this is not normally required for drug testing; it’s more common for standard health-related blood tests. Check with the lab to see if a fast is required. Since a blood test will require blood drawn from the elbow or hand, wear comfortable clothing that allows easy access to the arm.

Standardized Drug Testing

Like most medical testing, drug testing is standardized enough that it’s nothing to worry about. Well-known labs like Quest or LabCorp will be able to walk you through the process and obtain the biological samples they need for the test. After giving the sample, your job is done. They’ll communicate the results confidentially to whomever has requested the test, and you’ll be able to obtain a copy of the results for yourself through their online portal or in print if requested.

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