Should Parents Use Home Drug Tests?

There Are Some Drawbacks to Home Testing

Urine Test Strip
Should You Test Your Teens". &copy Getty Images

Home drug testing kits have become popular in recent years for parents trying to determine if their children are using drugs or to prevent them from abusing substances. But are home tests really effective? And are they helpful? Can they do more harm than good?

Is your child using drugs or alcohol? Are you sure? Answering these 20 questions can help you recognize some of the tell-tell signs.

Why Test Your Kids for Drugs?

There are several reasons that you might consider using home drug tests.

You may have considered it because the suspect your child is drinking or using drugs. The child's appearance, behavior or attitude has changed, and you suspect it may be due to substance abuse.

Or you may want to use the tests as a preventive measure. You don't believe your children have started using drugs yet, but you know drugs are out there and they are available. You believe if your children know they are going to be tested, it will prevent them from drinking or using.

Perhaps you already know your child has used drugs, because they got caught - at home, at school or by the police. You have placed your child on restrictions and have demanded that the drinking or drugging stop. You want to use the test to determine if your child is complying with your demands.

What Kind of Tests Are Available?

There are dozens of companies that offer home testing kits for sale. Home testing kits that produce instant results include breath tests, saliva tests and urine tests.

There are also kits that will test hair and blood samples, but those require a laboratory for screening results.

There are kits that will test for one drug at a time, and there are more expensive kits that will test for several drugs at the same time. Most of the drug testing kits test the child's urine.

The alcohol tests are usually breath or saliva tests.

How Do the Tests Work?

Most home drug testing kits detect the presence of alcohol or drug metabolites in urine, saliva or breath within minutes. Typically, the metabolites react with reagents and antigens on the test strips to cause them to change colors indicating either a positive or negative result.

Does Testing Prevent Drug Use?

The people who claim that home drug testing kits are effective in preventing substance abuse among children are mostly the people who are selling the drug kits. There is apparently little or no scientific evidence that using random drug testing -- either at home or at school -- is effective in preventing kids from initiating alcohol or drug use.

Those who sell the drug testing kits online claim that home testing prevents drug abuse by reducing peer pressure, but there is a void of scientific studies that substantiate those claims.

Are Drug Tests Accurate?

There is research that shows that drug testing is very accurate in verifying self-reports of drug use among children and adults. In other words, if the person said they have used drugs in the past month, testing can verify that claim most of the time. Likewise, if someone says they have not used drugs, testing can confirm that also.

But the researchers found accurate results were achieved only when the people conducting the drug testing were "knowledgeable concerning the performance characteristics of analytical procedures used for the drug tests," including knowing "the capabilities of the test methods and validation of procedures used by the testing laboratory." In other words, someone who is trained to conduct drug tests.

Are Home Drug Tests Accurate?

The home drug testing kits are "not consistent with the guidelines of professional medical organizations," according to other researchers. If you read the fine print on many home drug testing kits, it says that the kits only provide a "screening" for drugs for preliminary testing only.

The sample must be sent to a laboratory for confirmation.

Even for medical professionals, drug testing is technically challenging. One study showed that certified laboratories could have false negatives between 6% and 40% of the time. Testing performed at home by untrained parents would naturally have higher rates of error than tests conducted by healthcare professionals, researchers say.

What Are the Other Drawbacks to Home Tests?

The danger in using home drug testing lies with getting incorrect results. If you get a false negative with a drug test, you may be reassured that your child is not using drugs when in fact they are. On the other hand, if the test produces a false positive, you will mistakenly accuse your child of using drugs when they are not.

There are several other reasons home drug tests can be counterproductive:

  • It's Easy to Cheat: There are many ways to cheat a urine test, which we won't list here, but it's done all the time. The instructions are on the Internet.
  • False Positives Are Common: There are many household products and medications that can cause false positives.
  • Testing for the Wrong Drug: If you catch your kid smoking pot and test for marijuana, he could switch to painkillers or inhalants, and you would not know the problem was ongoing.
  • Time Limits of Testing: Most drugs clear the system within one to two days. Testing occasionally would not catch casual drug use, giving you a false sense of security.

Should You Home Test Your Child?

Ultimately, only you can make the decision whether or not to test your children for alcohol or drug use, but the experts say the negatives typically outweigh the positives on using home drug tests. You could get a false result and wrongly accuse your child, causing serious damage to your relationship.

After a 2004 study at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital, the Committee on Substance Abuse of the American Association of Pediatrics amended its policy to include a statement discouraging home drug testing by parents.

They suggest if you suspect that your child is using drugs, seek a professional assessment rather than conduct a drug test at home.


Levy, Sharon. "A Review of Internet-Based Home Drug-Testing Products for Parents." Pediatrics. April 2004.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Comparing Drug Testing and Self Report of Drug Use Among Youths and Young Adults in the General Population." 19 June 2008.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "Study Leads Pediatricians to Discourage Home Drug Testing by Parents" 31 July 2008.

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