There are many factors that can affect how long alcohol stays in your urine. Your weight, health, gender, kidney function and amount of alcohol use will all play an important role in determining how long alcohol can be detected in urine. The length of time that alcohol will be detectable will vary for everyone; however, there are some basic principles that will be the same for each situation.
Alcohol is absorbed and eliminated from the body in many different ways. When someone uses alcohol, some of the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach, but most of it is absorbed in the small bowel.
Most of the alcohol that someone drinks — about 90% to 95% — makes its way to the liver, where it is broken down. Liver cells convert ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, into another chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical that is responsible for hangover symptoms; this chemical is converted into acetate by the body. Acetate can be easily converted to carbon dioxide and water, both of which can be easily eliminated. Carbon dioxide is eliminated through exhaled breath, and water is eliminated through urine.
When a person ingests greater amounts of alcohol than the liver can sufficiently process at one time, the alcohol will build up in the bloodstream. The amount of alcohol in the blood is commonly referred to as a person’s blood alcohol concentration, or BAC. A person’s BAC is easily measurable with the use of a breathalyzer or through a blood test.
While 90% to 95% of alcohol is broken down by the liver, the remaining 5% to 10% will be eliminated in other ways, primarily through the lungs, sweat and urine.
Only about 1% to 2% of the alcohol a person drinks leaves the body in their urine. The ethanol in alcohol can be detected in a person’s urine within an hour of drinking, and it typically remains detectable for up to 12 hours after the alcohol is consumed. However, this time frame can vary based on a number of individual factors.
Alcohol shows up on drug tests that are specifically testing for the presence of alcohol. It is not normally included in routine drug tests, such as a drug test taken for employment. However, alcohol may be specifically tested for in cases where an accident occurs in a workplace or for legal purposes.
There are four main methods of testing for alcohol. These include:
Many different factors can affect how alcohol is absorbed and processed in a person’s body, ultimately affecting how long it might be detectable in their urine.
Women have less of the enzyme dehydrogenase, which is used by the body to break down alcohol in the liver. Women also have, on average, a lower ratio of muscle to fat and less water weight than men. These all can affect a person’s BAC. This means that women — all other factors equal or relative — typically reach higher levels of intoxication than men, even when drinking the same amount of alcohol.
Older people are more likely to become intoxicated faster. This is due to normal age-related changes in their bodies, including a slowing metabolism, loss of muscle tissue and decrease in water weight.
Drinks with higher alcohol concentrations or greater percentages of alcohol by volume (ABV), such as spirits and some wines, are generally absorbed by the body faster. This leads to more significant levels of intoxication. Carbonated or sparkling drinks, such as champagne or liquor mixed with soda, can have the same effect.
Drinking on a full stomach will slow the body’s absorption of the alcohol. Conversely, drinking on an empty stomach will speed up the effects of alcohol and cause a person to reach their peak BAC more quickly. In some cases, this can occur within just 30 minutes after consumption, depending on the amount of alcohol ingested. Foods higher in protein can also help stave off alcohol’s effects.
Genetics can make some people’s bodies more or less efficient at processing alcohol. When certain liver enzymes, such as ADH and ALDH, do not work sufficiently, the body is unable to process alcohol normally. In these cases, a person might experience a sudden rise in their acetaldehyde levels after drinking alcohol. This reaction can cause undesirable side effects, including a flushed face, reddening of the skin — especially in the face or neck — dizziness, hot sensations, nausea/vomiting and heart palpitations.
Depression, anxiety and alcohol don’t always mix well. While small amounts of alcohol can provide a person with a brief euphoria, larger amounts can actually worsen a person’s mood. Someone already suffering from a mood or mental health disorder might exacerbate their symptoms by drinking. The body’s stressful state may also change how the body processes the alcohol by causing a change in the stomach’s enzymes.
People with existing health conditions, such as heart problems, Type 2 diabetes, liver damage or kidney problems, may also process alcohol at a different or slower rate than the average healthy person. Conditions affecting the liver can make metabolizing alcohol difficult for the body to accomplish.
Urine testing is an inexpensive and less invasive way to detect alcohol in a person’s system. Since alcohol can sometimes remain detectable in the urine for up to two days after consumption, urine testing can provide information about alcohol use over longer periods of time than other tests.
Testing for alcohol in the urine is less accurate than other methods. Unlike breath, which is exhaled every three to five seconds, urine is emptied every few hours. This means that someone could use alcohol, give it time to metabolize and reach a legal level, then provide a urine sample that still says the amount of alcohol used was high.
Beyond this major problem, there are also ways alcohol urine tests can be false. Urine contains sugar. When combined with certain bladder infections, this sugar can ferment and create alcohol in the bladder, making the urine sample positive for alcohol even when no alcohol was used.
Ethyl glucuronide (EtG) alcohol tests are a newer form of urine test for alcohol. These tests look for the presence of EtG, a byproduct of alcohol use, rather than alcohol itself. EtG tests can detect if alcohol has been used within the last 80 hours.
Alcohol itself in urine has a relatively short detection window — usually up to 12 hours. But alcohol byproducts, such as ethyl glucuronide (EtG), can be detected in a person’s urine for up to 80 hours after they have consumed their last drink. Other lab tests might also test the urine for ethyl sulfate (EtS). EtS is another type of metabolic substance, or metabolite, that signals the presence of alcohol in a person’s system.
These tests are often more reliable than traditional urine testing and allow for a lengthened detection window. For these reasons, they are often the testing method of choice by courts to enforce probationary requirements. They are also often used by rehab programs to ensure effective treatment and identify a possible relapse.
However, these tests are not more commonly used in place of traditional urine testing. This is because there are several disadvantages to EtG/EtS urine testing, including:
One important problem with EtG/EtS urine testing is that these tests have been found to sometimes yield false positives, which can have serious adverse impacts on a person. This was researched in a 2006 study that evaluated the levels of EtG in the urine of participants who had used a commercially available mouthwash containing 12% ethanol. The study found that incidental exposure to ethanol from using mouthwash as directed can result in a positive urine screen for EtG.
The study authors suggested that all positive EtG results should be reviewed by a qualified health care professional.
There are several types of products that contain trace amounts of alcohol and could lead to a false-positive EtG urine test result. If you are anticipating undergoing an EtG test, some products to avoid include:
Anything with trace amounts of alcohol could cause a false-positive EtG test, even when only used externally.
Alcohol addiction can cause serious consequences. Failing an alcohol test while working or operating a vehicle can affect you legally and significantly impact many areas of your life.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, The Orlando Recovery Center is here to help. We are committed to helping people in Florida and around the country achieve lasting freedom from alcohol addiction. Our state-of-the-art facilities are designed to make your recovery experience as comfortable and as safe as possible. Contact us to learn more about professional treatment programs that can help you begin the journey to a healthier, alcohol-free future.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.