Agencies, companies and many others use urine alcohol tests. How long after the drinking can urine alcohol tests detect it? Depends.
I. Two Urine Tests
A. Alcohol in Urine
B. No Alcohol in Urine (EtG Test)
I. Two Urine Alcohol Tests
There are two kinds of urine alcohol tests.
A. Alcohol in Urine
The first identifies the presence of alcohol in urine. After a person drinks alcohol, some breaks down in the body. Some leaves through the breath, perspiration, feces, and urine.
But the test has a weakness. It can’t identify alcohol in the urine for very long after all alcohol has left the body.1 And alcohol leaves the body rather quickly. To estimate that speed, visit How Long Does Alcohol Stay in the Body?
A yeast, Candida Albicans, causes another weakness of this type of urine alcohol test. The body commonly contains this yeast. Unfortunately, it can change sugar in the urine into alcohol. And it can do this while urine is in the bladder or in the sample vial. This is an especially serious problem for diabetics.2
B. No Alcohol in Urine (Etg Test)
A second type of alcohol urine test doesn’t look for alcohol. It looks for one of the by-products caused as it breaks down in the body. That substance is Ethyl Glucuronide (EtG).
An EtG test advantage is that EtG remains in the body long after all the alcohol is gone. However, the exact length of time is unclear.
It probably depends on a number of factors. Claims vary. Some say that EtG can last “up to 70 to 80 hours.” Others say “approximately 80 hours.” Or “up to 80 hours,” “3 to four days,” etc.
Such claims usually come from those who sell the tests. However, independent researchers tend to report much shorter times, such as 24 hours.
They are appropriate when a person must be totally abstinent for a certain length of time. It could be either temporarily or permanently. Here are examples.
- People under the legal drinking age. Also members of the military services in combat zones where they may not drink.
- People on probation for alcohol-related crimes.
- People who have previous alcohol problems but have visitation with, or custody of, children. This on condition that they drink no alcohol.
- Drivers guilty of alcohol-related traffic offenses who must abstain. They need to abstain to keep their licenses.
- Professionals who, because of alcohol problems, agree to abstain. This is a condition for continued licensure or employment. Such professionals include airline pilots, medical personnel, and lawyers,
In addition, clinicians can use EtG urine alcohol tests to motivate clients to be abstinent. Researchers can use the tests to assess the effectiveness of alcohol intervention programs. Parents can use them to discourage underage drinking.
Sellers of test kits promote the latter use. However, it is highly controversial. The American Association of Pediatrics discourages the practice. The same is true other leading professional organizations. The many problems associated with such testing may far outweigh any assumed benefits.3
An EtG test is not appropriate for people who are able to drink while on their own time. In this case, an alcohol breath test would be appropriate. But it’s essential to consider the many problems with its inaccuracy. Learn more at Alcohol Breath Tester Accuracy.
Shortly after the introduction of EtG urine alcohol tests, problems emerged. Many credible people insisted that they tested positive after being completely abstinent. Published research also suggested that the test might be unreliable.
There was increasing concern that the test might give false positive results. That is, that the test might falsely indicate drinking among abstainers.
The federal government issued a bulletin cautioning against using EtG urine alcohol tests in connection with “‘[l]egal or disciplinary action[s]’ as ‘primary or sole evidence’ because it is currently only a ‘potentially valuable clinical tool’ whose ‘use in forensic settings is premature.”’4 It still maintains that warning.
In that bulletin the government reported that
“At issue is whether exposure to alcohol or to the vapors of alcohol in many commercial products, such as personal care items, over-the-counter medications, cleaning products, desserts, wine vinegar, and the like or combinations of these products can cause elevation in EtG…that could suggest the person has resumed drinking. Exposure to these products, combined with possible influences of individual variables such as gender, age, and health status on alcohol biomarker responses, is still being studied.'”5
False Positive Results
EtG urine alcohol tests can falsely report alcohol consumption among abstinent people. For example, if they have eaten foods containing flavoring extracts. Foods cooked with wine or other alcoholic beverages. Flambe dishes such as cherries jubilee, bananas Foster, and baked Alaska.
Another source of false positive readings are personal care products. These include many mouthwashes. Aftershave lotions. Colognes. Perfumes. Antiperspirants. Hair sprays. Mousses. Cosmetics. Astringents. Bug sprays and body washes. And the list goes on.
Other sources of false positive results include health products such as medications, herbal therapies, and cough syrups. Ethel alcohol also exists in many household products such as detergents, cleaners, solvents, lacquers, paints, and surface preparations.
In fact, there are hundreds of household products containing ethanol. This, according to the Household Products Database of the National Library of Health.
Either skin contact or breathing vapors can yield false positive results from many of these common products.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) has issued a warning. “False positive responses can be harmful in medical and forensic settings. Individuals’ freedom or career can be in jeopardy.'”
Researchers are trying to learn how much such exposures affect EtG levels. They want to learn how EtG can test intentional alcohol use. How diseases, race, gender, and genetics effects test results.7 Also, we need to learn more about how other bacteria can effect test results.8
People subject to EtG urine alcohol tests need to be extremely careful. They must avoid any and all products that might cause false positive results. Their personal freedom or livelihood may depend on it.
In short, the answer to the question,”How long can urine alcohol tests detect drinking?,” is far from clear.
- Dasgupta, A. Beating Drug Tests and Defending Positive Results. Humana, 2010.
- Karch, S. Workplace Drug Testing. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2008.
- Karch, S. Forensic Issues in Alcohol Testing. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2008.
- Conigrave, K., et al. Diagnostic tests for alcohol consumption. Alc & Alc.,1995, 30, 13-26.
- 1. Urine Alcohol Tests. AlcoCheck. http://www.drugcheck.com/ac_urine-alcohol.html
- 2. What You Should Know About Testing for Alcohol in Urine. Verifications, Inc.
- 3. Lyon, L. 7 Reasons Parents Should Not Test Kids for Drug Use. U.S. News World Rep, Aug 6, 2006. Should Parents Use Home Drug Tests? There Are Some Drawbacks to Home Testing.
- 4. Johnson v. State Medical Board of Ohio.
- 5. SAMSHA. The Role of Biomarkers in the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorders. Advisory, 2012, 11(2).
- 6. Wojcik, M., & Hawthorne, J. Sensitivity of commercial ETG testing in screening for alcohol abstinence. Alc. Alc., 2007, 42(4), 317-320.
- 7. SAMSHA, ibid.
- 8. Quest Diagnostics.
- 9. What You Should Know About Testing for Alcohol in Urine. Verifications, Inc. site.
- 10. SAMSHA, ibid.