Drug testing in oral fluid

Clin Biochem Rev. 2006 Aug;27(3):147-59.


Over the last decade there have been considerable developments in the use of oral fluid (saliva) for drug testing. Oral fluid can provide a quick and non-invasive specimen for drug testing. However, its collection may be thwarted by lack of available fluid due to a range of physiological factors, including drug use itself. Food and techniques designed to stimulate production of oral fluid can also affect the concentration of drugs. Current applications are mainly focused on drugs of abuse testing in employees at workplaces where drug use has safety implications, in drivers of vehicles at the roadside and in other situations where drug impairment is suspected. Testing has included alcohol (ethanol) and a range of clinical tests eg antibodies to HIV, therapeutic drugs and steroids. Its main application has been for testing for drugs of abuse such as the amphetamines, cocaine and metabolites, opioids such as morphine, methadone and heroin, and for cannabis. Oral fluid concentrations of basic drugs such as the amphetamines, cocaine and some opioids are similar or higher than those in plasma. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major species present from cannabis use, displays similar concentrations in oral fluid compared to blood in the elimination phase. However, there is significant local absorption of the drug in the oral cavity which increases the concentrations for a period after use of drug. Depot effects occur for other drugs introduced into the body that allow local absorption, such as smoking of tobacco (nicotine), cocaine, amphetamines, or use of sub-lingual buprenorphine. Screening techniques are usually an adaptation of those used in other specimens, with an emphasis on the parent drug since this is usually the dominant species present in oral fluid. Confirmatory techniques are largely based on mass spectrometry (MS) with an emphasis on Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS), due to low sample volumes and the low detection limits required. Drug testing outside laboratory environments has become widespread and provides presumptive results within minutes of collection of specimens. This review focuses on the developments, particularly over the last 10 years, and outlines the roles and applications of testing for drugs in oral fluid, describes the difficulties associated with this form of testing and illustrates applications of oral fluid testing for specific drugs.