Urine Drug Screen


The urine drug screen, or urine toxicology screen, is a qualitative assay performed to indicate the presence or absence of a suspected drug

  • Most doctors have little understanding of the limitations of the urine toxicology screen used by their hospitals (Durback et al, 1998)


Spot tests

  • Rapid bedside qualitative testing
  • result in colour change
  • rarely used today

Spectrochemical tests

  • e.g. co-oximetry
  • rarely used

Limited urine screen (e.g. Toxlab)

  • Laboratory urine drug screens done locally usually look for a limited number of toxins using thin layer chromatography and/or a variety of drug-specific antibodies (ELISA)
  • can be rapidly performed in most centres and are widely available
  • typically used for drugs of abuse
  • immunoassays have better sensitivity and specificity than spot tests and spectrochemical tests
  • immunoassays are still limited by interference from cross-reactivity resulting in false positives

Comprehensive urine screen

  • A more complete drug screen to detect virtually all possible ingested drugs
  • techniques include high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), Gas chromatography-Mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and LC tandem mass spectrometric analysis (LC/MS/MS)
  • typically used by forensic toxicologists for determining cause of death
  • very expensive and found in reference laboratories
  • typically takes two to three weeks to get a result, thus unhelpful in the acute management of patients


  • identification of drug exposure when history is lacking identification of drug use in known or suspected drug users


In general

  • rarely change the acute management of suspected poisoning or overdose
  • assays vary from hospital to hospital and may not include the same drug panel
  • high rates of false positives
    • e.g. quinolones can cause false positive results for opioids
    • e.g. PPIs can cause false positive results for THC
  • high rates of false negatives
    • e.g. clonazepam, lorazepam, alprazolam, midazolam (CLAM) are missed by many assays
  • only indicate the presence of a drug, not the time of ingestion (assays may remain positive for extended periods post-drug exposure in some cases, e.g. days or weeks), the concentration or whether there is clinically significant intoxication
  • results require confirmation with a different assay (usually quantitative, such as gas chromatography/ mass spectrometry)
  • clinicians often have a poor understanding of the type of assay used at their institution, the limitations of the assay or the cost

Drugs of interest that are commonly not included in urine drug screens (Nelson et al, 2015):

  • Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics: zolpidem, eszopiclone, zaleplon
  • Ketamine (‘‘special K’’)
  • Mescaline (‘‘peyote’’)
  • Psilocybin (‘‘magic mushrooms’’)
  • Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and 1,4-Butanediol (precursor to GHB)
  • Chloral hydrate
  • Synthetic and designer cannabinoids (‘‘spice’’ and ‘‘K2’’)
  • Tryptamines
  • Phenethylamine derivatives (synthetic stimulants, ‘‘bath salts’’, ‘‘2C’’ drugs)
  • Imidazoline receptor agonists (clonidine, tetrahydrozoline, oxymetazoline)

Nelson et al (2015) has appendices listing the estimated detection times in the urine of commonly used drugs of abuse as well as common sources of inappropriate results on urine immunoassays


In emergency medicine and critical care settings, urine drug screens are rarely useful and should only be performed if they will potentially change acute management

  • Clinicians need to be aware of the type of urine drug screen available to them, and its limitations, before ordering a urine drug screen
  • Urine drug screens have high rates of false positives and false negatives; for definitive results, further quantitative assays are required

References and Links

Journal articles

  • Bhalla A. Bedside point of care toxicology screens in the ED: Utility and pitfalls. International journal of critical illness and injury science. 4(3):257-60. 2014. [pubmed]
  • Durback LF, Scharman EJ, Brown BS. Emergency physicians perceptions of drug screens at their own hospitals. Veterinary and human toxicology. 1998; 40(4):234-7. [pubmed]
  • Moeller KE, Lee KC, Kissack JC. Urine drug screening: practical guide for clinicians. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 83(1):66-76. 2008. [pubmed]
  • Nelson ZJ, Stellpflug SJ, Engebretsen KM. What Can a Urine Drug Screening Immunoassay Really Tell Us? Journal of pharmacy practice. 29(5):516-26. 2016. [pubmed]
  • Tenenbein M. Do you really need that emergency drug screen? Clinical toxicology. 47(4):286-91. 2009. [pubmed]

FOAM and web resources

CCC 700 6

Critical Care


Chris is an Intensivist and ECMO specialist at the Alfred ICU in Melbourne. He is also a Clinical Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University. He is a co-founder of the Australia and New Zealand Clinician Educator Network (ANZCEN) and is the Lead for the ANZCEN Clinician Educator Incubator programme. He is on the Board of Directors for the Intensive Care Foundation and is a First Part Examiner for the College of Intensive Care Medicine. He is an internationally recognised Clinician Educator with a passion for helping clinicians learn and for improving the clinical performance of individuals and collectives.

After finishing his medical degree at the University of Auckland, he continued post-graduate training in New Zealand as well as Australia’s Northern Territory, Perth and Melbourne. He has completed fellowship training in both intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, as well as post-graduate training in biochemistry, clinical toxicology, clinical epidemiology, and health professional education.

He is actively involved in in using translational simulation to improve patient care and the design of processes and systems at Alfred Health. He coordinates the Alfred ICU’s education and simulation programmes and runs the unit’s education website, INTENSIVE.  He created the ‘Critically Ill Airway’ course and teaches on numerous courses around the world. He is one of the founders of the FOAM movement (Free Open-Access Medical education) and is co-creator of litfl.com, the RAGE podcast, the Resuscitology course, and the SMACC conference.

His one great achievement is being the father of three amazing children.

On Twitter, he is @precordialthump.

| INTENSIVE | RAGE | Resuscitology | SMACC

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