Whether it’s included in cigarettes, nicotine pouches, or nicotine gum, nicotine shows up in your body after you use it. This means that if you are tested for nicotine at some point, the tester could know that you use nicotine products. Whether you are getting tested for health insurance, life insurance, or another reason, knowing how nicotine tests work can help you understand the results and the impact they may have on your life.
What is nicotine?
Nicotine is a stimulant that enters the bloodstream quickly upon ingestion and produces the dopamine boost people tend to look for when using nicotine products.
You probably already know that nicotine is one ingredient in tobacco products, and that it’s the one responsible for the buzz or calming high that you get from consuming one of those products. It’s also contained in tobacco-free products like nicotine pouches, vaping cartridges, e-cigarettes, nicotine gum, and nicotine patches.
How nicotine breaks down in the body
No matter how you ingest nicotine, it gets broken down by the liver into several other components. One of these is the metabolite cotinine. It is the most notable byproduct and the one that shows up on tests when taking a drug screening or other tests for drugs and levels of nicotine.
What are nicotine tests?
While nicotine tests can determine if nicotine is in your system, they’re not the preferred method. Nicotine tests are more likely to test for the byproduct cotinine, since it has a longer half-life and can stay in your system long enough to be detected easier. Cotinine is one of the most notable byproducts of nicotine after the liver breaks it down.
Whether the test uses your hair, blood, saliva, blood plasma, or urine, it is designed to detect cotinine levels with the understanding that the presence of this chemical means you had consumed nicotine at some point recently (typically within the past three days). It’s also worth noting that cotinine's half-life is the same in your saliva, blood, urine, or blood plasma.
Nicotine tests can be set to determine a plus or negative result, showing whether you have nicotine in your blood or not. They can also show the amount of nicotine (more or less).
Tests may also show anabasine, a chemical that’s only found in tobacco products. If someone wanted to see if you were smoking or using chewing tobacco but didn’t care about your use of other nicotine products (like tobacco-free nicotine pouches), they may use this test instead.
Why would you take a nicotine test?
Reasons for wanting to take a nicotine test include the following:
- To comply with a specific smoking cessation program
- To qualify for lower health or life insurance rates
- To be eligible for some jobs where nicotine use is prohibited
- To qualify for certain surgeries, such as an organ transplant or bariatric surgery
- To comply with court orders in some child custody cases
Physicians order nicotine tests to check for nicotine poisoning or overdoses, too. Someone who accidentally ingests a large amount of nicotine may get sick, and a nicotine test can confirm with doctors that this is the cause of the illness so they can treat it properly.
How long does nicotine stay in your hair?
While testing hair for nicotine isn't as common, it's possible to find traces of nicotine in hair samples for a significant length of time after using nicotine. Several factors determine just how long, but it's safe to say that nicotine tests on hair can show positive for weeks, months, or possibly years – depending on the test, the hair sample used, and personal factors, such as your genetics.
One thing to note is that studies suggest that nicotine in a hair sample doesn’t always mean the person was using nicotine products. It’s possible for tobacco smoke in the environment to cause a positive test. This may be why it’s not the go-to choice of testing options for those who want answers about recent nicotine use.
How long does nicotine stay in your blood?
Blood tests may be the most uncomfortable way to find out about nicotine use. They may also fail to detect nicotine appropriately, as the amount of cotinine in your blood may not show up much sooner than when using urine testing.
How long nicotine can last in your blood depends on many things, including how much nicotine you were exposed to and your genetics. While blood tests can show a positive or negative result, they can also show nicotine levels. Also, false positives and negatives are not unusual.
How long does nicotine stay in your urine?
Nicotine is more likely to show up in urine, with cotinine levels having a half-life of between 16 and 40 hours. (Half-life is the number of hours before half of the cotinine remains in your system.) Urine tests may show results even after this half-life period, with cotinine showing up 4-6 times more concentrated in blood or saliva.
What do the studies show? One reveals that urine tests can show nicotine use for up to 72 hours, especially in those who have smoked. Another found at least trace possible amounts in urine for up to 8 weeks. Why the difference? Your body’s unique makeup, how it works to break down materials, and your metabolism all play a role.
Your ethnicity may affect nicotine urine levels, too. It's possible to test positive if you've been in an environment with heavy second-hand smoke, even if you've never used a nicotine product personally. This could be the case for someone who works in a heavy-smoke environment, such as a casino, bar, or the home of someone who smokes heavily.
How long does nicotine stay in your saliva?
One way to test for nicotine involves having you spit in a tube or on a strip for a saliva test. Some prefer this method as it’s less embarrassing than having to produce a urine sample or submit to painful needles.
Saliva nicotine tests should yield similar results as blood tests, as nicotine stays in the blood in much the same way as saliva.
While most uses for nicotine tests require the oversight of a lab (such as employment, court orders, or your physician), saliva nicotine tests that test levels of cotinine are sold online and can be purchased for in-home use. These tests make a good alternative for the concerned parent who wants to know if their child has been using nicotine products or to test your own levels. You may just want to know if all of the cotinine has left your system after you finally quit smoking.
How can you clear nicotine from your system before a test?
Since nicotine can be detected by most tests for at least three days after use, the best way to make sure your test comes up negative for nicotine use is to stop using nicotine products for a time before you test. If you don't have enough advanced notice, and you want to help your body break down the nicotine faster to get it out of your body, you can try the following tips:
As your metabolism rises, you may clear nicotine from your system faster. Exercise can increase your metabolism, especially if you work out to the point of sweating. This also helps to expel waste from your body, which can include nicotine byproducts.
2. Stay hydrated
Drinking more helps your body get rid of waste, including nicotine. Be sure to drink plenty of water and other clear, healthy fluids to keep your body processing and disposing of materials like nicotine.
3. Eat well
When you focus on consuming nutritious foods, especially those high in antioxidants, you can help to keep your metabolism rate higher. What foods contain antioxidants? Oranges, carrots, and blueberries are good options, and they are loaded with fiber, too.
Remember, there's no exact timeframe for when nicotine will stop showing up on tests. How long it tests positive depends on you, your age and genes, hormones in your body, liver function, and how long you've used nicotine. Nicotine builds up in the body over time, too. If you've smoked for ten years, it could take longer to get a negative nicotine test than someone who has only had one cigarette and took the same test.
Can I pass a nicotine test?
While nicotine tests use science, figuring out if you can pass a nicotine test is not an exact science. Even if you have never used nicotine, you may still test positive at times, simply from being around secondhand smoke in your environment. Still, the best way to test negative for nicotine is to not use it or stop using it long before a test, with blood, saliva, and urine tests less likely to detect nicotine levels from a long time ago.
If you use nicotine products but not tobacco, and you want to pass a test that’s designed to determine tobacco use status, ask about an anabasine test instead of a cotinine test. It's designed to only show the results of tobacco use. This means that those who choose a tobacco-free nicotine lifestyle will not be penalized in the same way as smokers or those who use other tobacco products.