What Causes False Positives On Drug Tests?
A common prerequisite to being hired at a new company is to take a routine drug test. As you don't take drugs, you think nothing of it, but are shocked and dismayed when the results are returned to you, indicating that you have failed. Not only can this put your new job in jeopardy, you have now been labeled a drug user.
Surprisingly, this happens more often than you would think and is often due to the prescription and over the counter medications you are taking. Even some common foods can cause positive tests!
Why Do False-Positives Happen?
The main issue is the tests themselves. Most employers use simple, urine based immunoassay tests known as a EIA (Enzyme Linked Immunoassay) test or a CEDIA (Closed Enzyme Donor Immunoassay) test. They both use similar principles. These tests work by utilizing antibodies to react to specific drug compounds. Basically, when a specified drug is present in a test urine sample, an antibody binds to it, which produces a reaction. When a reaction occurs, it is recorded as a 'positive' result.
With these urine tests, there can be a significant problem with 'cross-reactivity'. Drugs that are NOT being tested for can occasionally react with the wrong antibody (i.e. 'cross react'), resulting in a 'false positive'. A common example we hear about is poppy seeds causing positive opioid tests. This is not a myth and many studies have shown this is possible.
Below is a list of some common drugs that can cause false positives:
False Positive Opioid Tests:
- Poppy Seeds
- Levaquin (Levofloxacin)
- Delsym (Dextromethorphan)
- Benadryl (Diphenhydramine)
False Positive Amphetamine Tests:
- Sudafed (Pseudoephedrine)
- Zantac (Ranitidine)
- Wellbutrin (Buproprion)
False Positive Marijuana:
- Certain NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen, naproxen)
- Certain PPIs (e.g. Prilosec, Omeprazole, Prevacid)
What To Do Next
If you get a false positive on a drug test, what can you do? If your employer allows, you could retake the test. While false positives do happen, they are relatively uncommon and ideally a repeat test will clear you.
In addition, there are tests that are much more accurate than the urine based immunoassay tests. There are two tests that are can detect drug compounds in a specific manner, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). These tests do not use antibodies and can accurately determine the exact molecule in question. If you received a 'false positive', these tests will be able confirm that the offending drug compound is not present. You can inquire as to whether or not these tests can be utilized to clear you if you receive a 'false positive'.
Unfortunately, tests that are not immunoassay based are more expensive and rarely used in a common drug screening. You may only have an option to request the more accurate tests if you are already employed at a company and need to prove your innocence.
On the plus side, we have a deeper understanding of how common 'false positives' really are. Most labs nowadays will run all positive screening results through more accurate and reliable confirmation tests.
When taking a drug test, it is extremely important to make the testing agency aware of all the medications you are taking. They know what drugs are documented to cause 'false positives' and may further examine a positive result based on your medications.