Does Alcohol Appear in Drug Tests?
01 May, 2023
An alcohol and drug test looks for impairing substances in the body using various methods. A urine or saliva screening typically tests for illicit substances like marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and opiates. However, alcohol may also appear in a drug test if requested. The liver processes alcohol and produces metabolites that stay in the body for a certain amount of time. These metabolites are detectable in urine, saliva, sweat, blood, and hair.
Heavy consumption puts an individual at health and safety risks. Workplaces may include alcohol in drug testing to process one sample simultaneously. In addition, understanding how the body processes alcohol is essential in drug testing. Factors include the alcohol burn-off rate and detection windows. Therefore, individuals can make informed decisions regarding their alcohol consumption. The following sections present what happens to alcohol in the body, different test methods, and information on blood alcohol levels.
Alcohol and Drug Test – How the Body Processes Alcohol
Alcohol is a type of depressant drug affecting the central nervous system by slowing brain and neural activities. It affects perception (vision, hearing, smell, speech), cognition (reasoning, judgement, awareness of surroundings), and motor functions (eye-hand coordination). Therefore, excessive consumption can severely impair the senses and coordination, posing safety risks in driving or operating equipment. An alcohol drug test can measure the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) or impairment level.
Despite the body’s rapid absorption, it can only metabolise alcohol at a fixed rate of 0.015% BAC per hour. The more a person consumes, the longer it takes for alcohol to stay in the system. Likewise, alcohol metabolism cannot be sped up by any means. For example, drinking water will not affect blood alcohol levels. Furthermore, alcohol reaches different organs like the lungs and brain through the bloodstream within minutes after consumption, making a person intoxicated immediately.
After ingestion, most alcohol goes through the liver for metabolism, while a small portion enters the bloodstream. It peaks in the body approximately one hour after consumption and declines steadily after. Enzymes in the liver break down alcohol compounds and excrete them through urine, sweat, and breath. The process produces altered substances called metabolites, staying in various organs for a limited period. Therefore, alcohol appears in drug tests and is traceable for several hours.
Risks of Alcohol Consumption
Excessive alcohol use can bring the following risks:
- impaired driving – unable to safely control a vehicle and react on time
- prone to road accidents, falls, drownings, and other injuries
- health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver dysfunction
- deterioration of the immune system
- mental health problems, including anxiety and depression
Alcohol Drug Test Methods
When the liver processes alcohol, it produces ethyl glucuronide (EtG). It is a biomarker indicating alcohol consumption. It appears in an alcohol drug test through urine, saliva, blood, and hair. However, it stays longer in urine. An EtG urine test detects the presence of metabolites for up to 72 hours, even after alcohol has exited the body. It can also trace amounts of EtG for up to 120 hours if the ingestion is heavier.
Alcohol or metabolites are also found in saliva after five hours of intake. They enter the salivary glands through diffusion from the bloodstream and may last up to 12 hours. The detection window is shorter than urine, making it suitable for recent alcohol use monitoring. Moreover, an alcohol saliva strip test (AST) is a screening tool for providing a BAC estimate. A test strip will change colour on the reaction pad depending on the amount of alcohol present.
Another option is a hair test. Alcohol metabolites deposit into the hair follicle and remain as the hair grow. Thus, alcohol appears in drug tests through hair samples and shows patterns of alcohol use. It can detect substances for up to 90 days. It is suitable for confirming a person’s history but not recent usage. Lastly, a blood test provides the highest accuracy in alcohol detection. However, due to its intrusive nature, it is used to confirm preliminary results.
Alcohol Detection Window
Depending on the dosage, alcohol is detectable in various specimens for the following periods:
- urine: 12-24 hours; 3-5 days via EtG
- blood: 6-12 hours
- oral fluid (saliva): between 6-12 hours
- breath: between 20 minutes up to 24 hours
- hair: up to 90 days
- sweat: after 20 minutes
- nails: up to 90 days
Alcohol and Drug Test – Breath Analysis
Although alcohol appears in drug tests via urine, saliva, or blood sample, the most cost-effective method is a breath test. It is a non-invasive procedure for measuring the BAC level. Furthermore, alcohol is a volatile substance that vaporises with alveoli air once it reaches the lungs. Thus, the expired breath can contain alcohol concentration relative to the amount in the blood. Alcohol can show up in breath after 15 minutes of intake, providing a real-time update of the BAC.
A breathalyser device captures the breath sample and analyses it through the sensors. Pro-grade breathalysers use fuel cell sensor technology, offering high precision among other breath test kits. Moreover, they are specific to ethanol and do not react to other substances. Consequently, it makes them less likely to produce false-positive results, enhancing their accuracy. A fuel cell breathalyser is the standard in roadside and workplace alcohol testing.
Alcohol affects everyone differently. In general, the higher the BAC, the more severe the impairment. Small to moderate amounts can cause elevated mood, relaxation, euphoria, and lowered inhibitions. However, higher doses can cause ill effects such as nausea and vomiting. Furthermore, individuals must keep below 0.05% BAC, the legal limit when driving. For efficient monitoring, individuals may use a breathalyser instead of checking if alcohol appears in drug tests.
Factors Influencing the BAC
The increase in BAC during alcohol consumption depends on the following factors:
- alcohol concentration in drink
- rate of consumption – how quickly you drink in a span of time
- body composition – body fat, weight, gender
- food and water content
- metabolic rate
- interaction with drugs or medication
- alcohol tolerance
An alcohol and drug test is essential for many reasons. Misuse or excessive consumption can lead to long-term health problems and safety risks. Therefore, individuals check their BAC level regularly to avoid severe impairment. It also ensures they do not exceed the legal limit and prevent road accidents or drunk-driving charges. Similarly, workplaces test for alcohol and drugs to minimise injuries. Employers may include alcohol in drug screening to check for impairing substances at once.
Various methods can test for alcohol, including urine, saliva, blood, hair and breath. Each procedure has varying detection windows, making them suitable for varying circumstances or screening needs. In particular, an EtG urine test can detect alcohol consumption over an extended period. A hair follicle test having a long window is ideal for determining a person’s substance use history, especially in treatment monitoring. Lastly, a breathalyser, like BACtrack, is the most cost-efficient method of delivering the BAC results in seconds.