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Understanding testing hair for drug and alcohol abuse

Drugs: use, abuse and addiction

One of the biggest challenges of social workers and health professionals is to fight the use and abuse of dangerous drugs and narcotics. The tempting and addicting power of drugs is as old as time, and even other animals often succumb to drug use and abuse when they find them in nature. However, many of these substances are harmful to our health and to our behaviour as social beings, and the biggest danger of all is that they slowly take away from us the power to resist the urge to take more and more.

There are many stories of both people who died of drug abuse - often after leading a miserable existence - and those who could overcome their addictions and learned life lessons that they can teach to others. Law enforcers, health professionals and government organizations struggle to protect people from the terrible effects of drugs. Not only do they try to discover and erradicate illegal drugs and their use, but also to protect the rest of the citizens from the harmful effects of both the drugs and the behaviour of the addicts. Illegal drugs are sometimes linked to crime or antisocial behaviour, as well as carelessness about their effect on other people. In example, many drug users aren't aware of their effects on children; kids are more vulnerable to illegal drugs as well as to any other drug they take, from alcohol to medicines. Taking drugs while pregnant or breastfeeding, smoking in front of children, and other careless behaviours endangers the life and health of kids. It isn't uncommon that drug users are so damaged in their brains that they tend to forget or underestimate the clear impact that what they do has on children - as well as the fact that it matters.

Drug tests

There are a few methods that allow professionals or law enforcers to detect whether or not a person has consumed drugs or alcohol. A blood test is often the most reliable way to detect drug traces. Urine samples and breath tests can also determine recent drug use, depending on the substance. However, these tests can only detect drug use in the last few hours at most. After the substance has been naturally filtered from the blood and it has abandoned a person's system, there is no direct way to study consumption. The use of some drugs has consequences that can be evaluated in the long term, like nose injury after regular use of cocaine, but these indicators aren't very precise. They cannot report a detailed history of drug use, so they have little application in forensics and investigation.

There are some predictor factors that allow professionals to detect increased risk of drug abuse or addiction, and expertes have even identified genes linked addiction in many drug dependent people. Scientists hope to develop ways to better understand why some people become addicted while others don't, so prevention can be aimed towards those who are at higher risk. However, a way to detect drug use in the long term is essential for the follow-up of potential drug addicts, especially those who are recovering from addiction. A different method, other than blood tests or similar, must be developed.

Hair tests for drug use

Hair testing is a very reliable way to screen which drugs a person has been taking, when, and how much of each, in the last months or even years. The principle under which this test works is very simple. Hair is made from dead cells and it grows from little bags called folicules right under our skin. When we take drugs, they get to every cell of our body, including those in our folicules. Therefore, the section of hair that grows from those cells have traces of all drugs taken during that period. 

Doing a hait test consists in taking a few straws of hair and cutting them into small sections, usually the length of a month's worth of hair growth. Each section is tested in order, and the result is a month-by-month or even week-by-week report on drug use, including illegal drugs, alcohol and others. 

These tests are often used in personal legal services and family law, especially in the case of former drug addicts and/or people under treatment. Of course, you have to make sure to avoid unreliable tests, because these results are very serious. In example, if a person who is known to have used drugs wants to keep custody of a child, or someone who has been arrested for drug use wants to later get a job, these tests might make the difference for them.

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