Drug Testing Teens

Drug testing teens can be a sensitive issue. This article has information on how teen drug and alcohol tests work, what drugs are commonly tested for, the pros and cons of drug testing teens, and options available to parents who wish to have their teenager drug tested.

This article contains information about drug and alcohol testing for teens, including what kinds of tests are available, what types of drugs they detect, and the most effective ways to use drug testing to help teens.

When teenagers seem to be acting differently, parents may wonder if their teenagers are using drugs, even if the teen denies drug use. Drug testing can be one way of finding out if a teen is abusing drugs or alcohol, but before parents try to use a drug test, they should learn more about drug testing.

How do drug tests work?

Drug tests look for residues or markers of drugs or alcohol in a sample taken from the teen. There are many kinds of tests, but they usually test one of the following samples:

  • Hair
  • Blood, often used by doctors
  • Urine, commonly used in workplace drug testing
  • Saliva
  • Sweat, which is collected with a tamper-proof patch the teen wears
  • Breath, used by police officers to determine if someone has been drinking

These different tests have different lengths for which they are effective. Breath tests detect alcohol when a person has been drinking recently. Blood, saliva, urine, and sweat detect drugs that were used fairly recently, from 1 to 5 days before the test. Hair tests can detect drug use in the period for about 90 days prior to the test.

Each type of drug test checks for different substances. Some look for common street drugs, the use of which have been declining in recent years, while others check for the abuse of prescription drugs, which is becoming a more common problem.

The most common drugs that tests look for are:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Opioids
  • Amphetamines
  • PCP

Tests for the following substances are also available:

  • Nicotine
  • Ecstasy
  • GHB
  • Steroids
  • Meth
  • Heroin
  • LSD
  • Barbiturates
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Methadone
  • Alcohol

Usually when a person takes a drug test and it comes back positive, a follow up test is required to make sure the test was accurate.

What are the drawbacks to drug testing?

Drug testing is not a foolproof way to tell if a teen is using drugs. There are some drawbacks to drug testing:

  • The tests are not 100% accurate. Some tests give false positives, while others may miss certain drugs that a teen may be using.
  • There are ways to fool a drug test, though these methods don’t always work. 
  • Though some drug tests are $10 to $30 per test, others are more expensive, and the costs can add up.
  • If the tests are done in secret by parents, it may result in a further break in trust between parent and teen, which could hinder the recovery effort.
  • When parents get the result of a drug test, they may not be sure what to do with the results they have.

Drug testing is considered most effective when it is part of a large-scale program of random drug testing, such as for a company or sports team. In these cases drug testing is used along with education and counseling to discourage people from using drugs and to find those who do have a drug problem and get help for them. Tests have shown mixed results in the success of random drug testing programs.

What if I want to test my teen for drugs?

Usually parents want to test their teen for drugs because they notice that their teen is acting differently. These changes can indicate drug use, but they can also be part of the normal changes a teen goes through, or be related to other problems teens face like depression or eating disorders.

Before parents assume a teen is using drugs, they should get educated about drugs, especially those that are a problem in their area. They might want to learn about which drugs are common problems, what their symptoms are, how teens get and use the drug, and what dangers the drug poses to teens. Good sources for this information include school administrators, local law enforcement and health departments, reliable Internet sites, and the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, at 1-800-788-2800.

Once parents have some drug facts, they can sit down and talk to their teen. When you do this, try not to be angry or accusatory. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Tell your teen specifically what you are worried about and why, and that you want to help.

If your teen denies using drugs but you are convinced there is a problem, you may want to consider drug testing.

Parents who want their teen tested for drugs have several options. These are:

  • Take the teen to a doctor, who can test not only for drugs, but also for other medical conditions that can cause similar symptoms, and substances the teen may not be aware he or she was exposed to, such as lead or mercury. The advantage of this approach is that the doctor can work with parents to understand the results of the tests and decide what to do next.
  • Talk to school administrators and other members of the community about instituting drug testing at school. This is a good option if you suspect large numbers of students involved in certain activities like school sports teams are using drugs. The results of these drug tests must be kept confidential.
  • Parents can purchase drug tests for the suspected drugs and do them themselves. You may want to consider telling the teen you will be doing random drug tests to discourage use and to encourage the teen to admit he or she is using. Doing tests in secret will break any trust the teen may have in you, which trust is important in the recovery process. Parents may feel this is worth it if the teen has a serious problem.

Parents who want to use drug testing kits should look for reliable tests, such as those accredited by national organizations, and find those that test for the drugs the teen is likely to be using.

If your teen has a positive drug test, try not to be angry, but instead turn to a doctor, counselor, or program that can help your teen begin to recover from his or her drug problem.


Student Drug-testing Institute, "Frequently Asked Questions" [online]

Parents. The Anti-drug, "Suspect Your Teen is Using Drugs or Drinking?" [online]

Nemours, KidsHealth, "Steroids" [online]

Related Article: Teen Drug Treatment >>