What does a 5-panel drug test look for?

Written by s.l. stoddart
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What does a 5-panel drug test look for?
The 5-panel drug screen tests for illicit drugs. (holder with test tubes image by alma_sacra from Fotolia.com)

The five-panel drug test, also referred to as NIDA-5, is a standard drug test established by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The test is the most-used method of drug testing. This test is commonly executed as a pre-employment screening technique. The five-panel drug test can be performed and analysed by a laboratory, or administered at home, with rapid results.

Controlled Substances

The five-panel drug screen will test for the following controlled substances, typically through a urine sample: marijuana (THC), cocaine, amphetamines/methamphetamines (Ecstasy, crystal meth), opiates (heroin) and phencyclidine (PCP). These five substances are considered to be the most commonly abused drugs. The minimum concentration level for each drug group has been established by SAMHSA.

Interpreting the Results

The results of the test are determined against a control value. The control value shows the results of what a clean, drug-free sample would return. For most home-testing kits, the control value displays a red line. If the test sample does not display this red line, then the sample has tested positive for that substance. Likewise, if the test sample does show a red line, that sample has tested negative for the substance. A positive result means the drug has been found in the sample.

Reasons for Drug Testing

SAMHSA has developed the Division of Workplace Programs, which concentrates on providing drug-free work environments. The Division of Workplace Programs has found many justifiable reasons for requesting a five-panel drug test, including pre-employment screening, testing after an on-the-job accident, return-to-duty testing, follow-up testing and testing under reasonable suspicion or cause.

Accuracy of Drug Tests

While home-testing kits can show if any of the five-panel drugs have been found in the sample, the only way to ensure 100 per cent accuracy is to send the sample to a laboratory for testing. Drug tests that are performed under the request of employers are usually verified with a laboratory, so the results can be relied upon. However, it has been shown that some home-testing kits are often just as accurate as laboratory testing.


Even though test results can show if a person used one or more of the drugs tested for, they cannot provide any further information. The five-panel drug test cannot determine how long ago the drug use took place, or the time period during which the drug was used. Upon positive results of the five-panel test, additional testing can be performed to answer these questions, such as a hair follicle drug test.

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