To find out if you're as healthy as you say you are on your life
insurance application, don't be surprised if underwriters go
straight to the source: your mouth.
Instead of blood and urine tests, insurance companies sometimes
require saliva samples. The test is simple. A swab is rubbed on the
inside of your cheek, and the sample is sent to a lab.
"It doesn't hurt at all, and it literally takes five seconds,"
says Dr. Jim Palmier, medical director of ExamOne, a Quest
The procedure may be short and sweet, but that little sample of
saliva can tell a lot about you.
Do you smoke? Do you do drugs? Have you been infected with HIV
or hepatitis B or C?
The answers will impact your
life insurance quotes
Not the gold standard
Not all life insurance companies use swab tests, and those that
do don't necessarily use them for every applicant. Palmier says
insurers tend to rely on saliva samples for younger life insurance
applicants and people who purchase policies with lower face
amounts. Insurers do not use the swab test for genetic testing.
"Urine and blood would be considered the gold standard in
testing," Palmier says.
Saliva samples are a less-expensive alternative insurers use
when they don't think fuller screening is necessary.
New York Life Insurance Co., for example, uses swab tests on all
applicants 18 and older for policy face amounts from $50,000 to
$99,000, says Stephen Bloom, New York Life's first vice president
and chief underwriter. Blood tests are used for people 18 and older
who apply for policy face amounts of $100,000 and over.
Life insurance swab tests have been in use for more than two
decades. In the early years,
companies operated their own laboratory facilities in their home
offices. Later, they began contracting with labs, such as ExamOne
and Examination Management Services Inc. (EMSI)
Use of swab tests first began to increase 20 years ago, along
with the use of urine and blood samples. The use of such tests has
leveled off in recent years, says Kim Anderson, senior vice
president of the Insurance Services Division at EMSI.
Swab tests have a couple of advantages over blood and urine
tests for insurers.
"They're less invasive and less costly, not only from the
collection standpoint but from testing the samples," Anderson
Unlike a blood test, giving a swab test doesn't require a
licensed medical professional. The test is so easy, in fact, that
life insurance agents themselves collect the swab samples from
clients in some instances, Anderson says. In others, medical
professionals conducting exams administer the swab tests.
What life insurance companies want to know
Life insurance companies vary in the types of tests they run on
saliva samples. Palmier says insurers most commonly want to know
whether the applicant is a cocaine user or tobacco user, or is
HIV-positive. Insurers are especially interested in cocaine use
because of the risky behaviors that accompany abuse of that drug,
he says, but the samples can also be tested for use of other drugs.
Palmier says ExamOne is in the research and development phase of a
swab test for methamphetamine.
The amount of time drugs such as nicotine and cocaine stay in
the system and are detectable in a swab test depends on a variety
of factors, including your body fat percentage, how often you use
the drug and your level of hydration.
To find out whether you're a smoker, the lab tests the sample
for cotinine, a chemical the body makes from nicotine. If you're
not a regular smoker, and you just happen to take a few puffs on a
friend's cigarette at a party, the level of cotinine probably won't
be detectable after a couple of days, Palmier says.
But if you're a regular smoker, it will take longer for the
level to drop. The length of time could vary from several days to
two months in rare cases, Anderson says.
To ensure an accurate test, Palmier recommends not eating
anything right before the test. If you do happen to eat or drink
something, rinse your mouth out with water.
"If you're truly a smoker it'll come up positive," Palmier says.
It's best to be honest about your lifestyle when making a life
insurance application. Lab tests likely will catch you in a