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Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test

Last updated July 11, 2016

Brandon Blinkenberg

The Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test measures the levels of cotinine in hair. This test is used in rare cases to assess whether an individual consumes tobacco and to detect nicotine toxicity.


What are the other Names for this Test? (Equivalent Terms)

  • Nicotine and Metabolites Hair Test 

What is Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test? (Background Information)

  • Nicotine is a compound abundant in tobacco leaves. It is also present in plants belonging to the nightshade family, which includes tomato and eggplant (brinjal). Nicotine is addictive and acts as a stimulant when consumed
  • Common methods of consuming nicotine include smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco. The dose of nicotine consumed varies with the mode of consumption
  • The liver breaks down nicotine into various products, including cotinine. Whereas nicotine levels decline rapidly (half-life of 2 hours), cotinine levels linger (half-life of 20 hours). Cotinine may even intercalate (get inserted) into hair
  • Cotinine serves as a better indicator for nicotine levels than measuring nicotine directly due to its longer half-life and greater stability. Furthermore, the only source of cotinine is the degradation of nicotine; thus, further validating cotinine testing
  • The Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test measures the levels of cotinine in hair. This test is used in rare cases to assess whether an individual consumes tobacco and to detect nicotine toxicity 

What are the Clinical Indications for performing the Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test?

Following are the clinical indications for performing a Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test:

  • Screening for tobacco consumption for pre-employment, child custody, or health insurance enrollment purposes
  • Detecting nicotine toxicity, which is marked by:
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Dizziness
    • Numbness of the mouth and drooling
    • Muscle twitching
    • Abdominal pain                       

How is the Specimen Collected for Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test?

Following is the specimen collection process for Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test:

Sample required: Hair

Process: Several strands of hair are plucked and tested.

Preparation required: No special preparation is needed prior to the test. 

What is the Significance of the Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test Result?

  • A positive Nicotine (or Cotinine) Hair Test may indicate tobacco consumption or consumption from a secondary source such as secondhand smoke
  • Excessive nicotine/cotinine levels may indicate nicotine toxicity 

The laboratory test results are NOT to be interpreted as results of a "stand-alone" test. The test results have to be interpreted after correlating with suitable clinical findings and additional supplemental tests/information. Your healthcare providers will explain the meaning of your tests results based on the overall clinical scenario. 

Additional and Relevant Useful Information:

  • In general, the Nicotine (or Cotinine) Test measures the levels of cotinine in blood, saliva, urine, or rarely, in hair
  • Nicotine acts as a defense mechanism for plants that produce it. It helps to ward-off herbivores and other such plant-eaters
  • In fact, nicotine is still used as an herbicide in agriculture in some parts of the world; even though, in many countries, it is no longer used 

Certain medications that you may be currently taking may influence the outcome of the test. Hence, it is important to inform your healthcare provider of the complete list of medications (including any herbal supplements) you are currently taking. This will help the healthcare provider interpret your test results more accurately and avoid unnecessary chances of a misdiagnosis. 

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

DoveMed is currently working to bring you additional resources.

Please sign up by creating a DoveMed account to receive periodic notification on information updates. 

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Lab Tests Online (2013, December 30). Retrieved November 12, 2014 from http://labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/nicotine/

Siegmund, B. (1999). Determination of the nicotine content of various edible nightshades (Solanaceae) and their products and estimation of the associated dietary nicotine intake. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry47(8), 3113-20

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Nov. 12, 2014
Last updated: July 11, 2016