Monitoring opiate use in substance abuse treatment patients with sweat and urine drug testing

J Anal Toxicol. 2000 Oct;24(7):509-21. doi: 10.1093/jat/24.7.509.


Although urine testing remains the standard for drug use monitoring, sweat testing for drugs of abuse is increasing, especially in criminal justice programs. One reason for this increase is sweat testing may widen the detection window compared to urine testing. Drug metabolites are rapidly excreted in urine limiting the window of detection of a single use to a few days. In contrast, sweat collection devices can be worn for longer periods of time. This study was designed to compare the efficacy of sweat testing versus urine testing for detecting drug use. Paired sweat patches that were applied and removed weekly on Tuesdays were compared to 3-5 consecutive urine specimens collected Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (355 matched sweat and urine specimen sets) from 44 patients in a methadone-maintenance outpatient treatment program. All patches (N = 925) were extracted in 2.5 mL of solvent and analyzed by ELISA immunoassay for opiates (cutoff concentration 10 ng/mL). A subset (N = 389) of patches was analyzed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Urine specimens (N = 1886) were subjected to qualitative analysis by EMIT (cutoff 300 ng/mL). Results were evaluated to (1) determine the identity and relative amounts of opiates in sweat; (2) assess replicability in duplicate patches; (3) compare ELISA and GC-MS results for opiates in sweat; and (4) compare the detection of opiate use by sweat and urine testing. Opiates were detected in 38.5% of the sweat patches with the ELISA screen. GC-MS analysis confirmed 83.4% of the screen-positive sweat patches for heroin, 6-acetylmorphine, morphine, and/or codeine (cutoff concentration 5 ng/mL) and 90.2% of the screen-negative patches. The sensitivity, specificity, and efficiency of ELISA opiate results as compared to GC-MS results in sweat were 96.7%, 72.2%, and 89.5%, respectively. Heroin and/or 6-acetylmorphine were detected in 78.1% of the GC-MS-positive sweat patches. Median concentrations of heroin, 6-acetylmorphine, morphine, and codeine in the positive sweat samples were 10.5, 13.6, 15.9, and 13.0 ng/mL, respectively. Agreement in paired sweat patch test results was 90.6% by ELISA analysis. For the purposes of this comparison of ELISA sweat patch to EMIT urine screening for opiates, the more commonly used urine test was considered to be the reference method. The sensitivity, specificity, and efficiency of sweat patch results to urine results for opiates were 68.6%, 86.1%, and 78.6%, respectively. There were 13.5% false-negative and 7.9% false-positive sweat results as compared to urine tests. Analysis of sweat patches provides an alternate method for objectively monitoring drug use and provides an advantage over urine drug testing by extending drug detection times to one week or longer. In addition, identification of heroin and/or 6-acetylmorphine in sweat patches confirmed the use of heroin in 78.1% of the positive cases and differentiated illicit heroin use from possible ingestion of codeine or opiate-containing foods. However, the percentage of false-negative results, at least in this treatment population, indicates that weekly sweat testing may be less sensitive than thrice weekly urine testing in detecting opiate use.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Enzyme Multiplied Immunoassay Technique
  • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay
  • Female
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Methadone / therapeutic use
  • Middle Aged
  • Narcotics / immunology
  • Narcotics / therapeutic use
  • Narcotics / urine*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / urine*
  • Patch Tests
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Substance Abuse Detection / methods*
  • Sweat / chemistry*


  • Narcotics
  • Methadone