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Drinking isn’t a guessing game—there are science-backed methods to understand how intoxicated you are based on your body type.
The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) scale shows how much of your bloodstream is pure alcohol. For example, if you have a BAC of .10, it means that .1% of your bloodstream is alcohol. The scale looks like this:
BAC charts make it easy to see what a healthy range is for you. The charts are separated by male and female, since the male body tends to have more water and therefore a higher alcohol tolerance. Women also have significantly less of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in their stomach than men do.
Everybody is different in how many drinks they need to reach a given BAC. For a man who weighs 180 pounds, three drinks will put him at .06. An hour later, he’ll have a BAC of .04. Based on this chart, a woman who weighs 140 pounds and has two drinks in an hour will have a BAC of .07.
Lastly, if you eat before drinking, you’ll be able to keep your BAC lower since it prevents the alcohol from moving to the small intestine too quickly. But the only way to keep alcohol from reaching the bladder is to keep alcohol from entering your bloodstream in the first place.
Alcohol testing is performed for a variety of reasons. Alcohol can be detected in urine, blood, saliva, sweat, breath and even your hair follicles. You may be asked to take an alcohol test in a police investigation or as part of an alcohol treatment program.
There are different types of tests for different parts of your body, and each one has multiple uses. For example, if you’re being tested in a medical setting for intoxication, doctors are more likely to take a blood sample. In a legal setting, such as after an accident or a suspected DUI, you’re likely to be given a breath test.
Regardless of what part of the body the test is for, most alcohol tests are looking for one of two chemicals: ethanol or ethyl glucuronide (EtG).
While 92-98% of alcohol is metabolized in the liver, the remaining 2-8% leaves the body through urine, sweat and breath. Ethanol is beverage alcohol that can be detected in urine up to one or two hours after the alcohol has left the body.
When it comes to ethanol urine tests, there’s going to be a small lag as the body filters the alcohol from the blood into the bladder. Urine alcohol levels generally peak 45 to 60 minutes after alcohol ingestion. But once it’s there, it can be detectable for up to 12 hours.
How Ethanol Tests Are Used
Ethanol urine tests are not the most accurate, partly because the alcohol concentration in urine tends to lag behind the actual concentration of alcohol in the blood. Also, ethanol is created naturally in the body by bacteria. If you have diabetes, a yeast infection or if you’re producing ketones like on the keto diet, your body can naturally create enough ethanol to trigger a false positive. This is especially true if the urine sample is left out at room temperature, where the microorganisms can continue to ferment glucose and create more alcohol.
To combat inaccurate readings, you might be asked to give a second urine sample a half hour after the first one. This serves as a comparison to give a better picture of how long the alcohol has been in the bladder.
EtG is shorthand for ethyl glucuronide, a substance that’s created when the liver metabolizes alcohol. It’s generally used for situations where the timing of the drink doesn’t matter, such as when the individual is required to be completely abstinent. This is because EtG hangs around in the body far longer than ethanol does.
The EtG test has been called the “80 hour test,” but in reality, it can register a positive up to five days later, depending on how much alcohol the person drank. There’s no hard and fast rule, but here’s a snapshot of real-world test results:
One beer was detectable 16 hours later.
Six shots of vodka taken in 3 hours was detectable 54 hours later.
How EtG Tests Are Used
EtG tests are considered the gold standard of alcohol tests because they are much more accurate than other tests. However, they are not helpful for situations where the timing of the alcohol is important. For example, in a suspected DUI, an EtG test may register a positive even though the person drank alcohol the day before and isn’t actually intoxicated anymore.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Alcohol | Breastfeeding.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, December 28, 2019. Accessed March 11, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Impaired Driving: Get the Facts.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, March 22, 2019. Accessed March 11, 2020.
American Association for Clinical Chemistry. “Ethanol.” Lab Tests Online, March 6, 2020. Accessed March 11, 2020.
Hadland, Scott E and Levy, Sharon. “Objective Testing – Urine And Other Drug Tests.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, March 30, 2016. Accessed March 11, 2020.
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Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission. “Blood Alcohol Percentage Charts.” December 23, 2020. Accessed March 11, 2020.