How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Urine?
Last Updated: February 6, 2024
There are many different things that can impact how long alcohol stays in your urine. Your body weight, general health, gender, how well your kidneys work, and how much alcohol you consume can all be important factors that affect how long tests can detect alcohol in your urine. How long alcohol stays in your system can differ from person to person, but there are some general rules that apply to everyone.
What Happens to Alcohol in the Body?
There are many different methods the body uses to both absorb and eliminate alcohol. The absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream begins in the stomach. However, most of the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream by the small bowel where it then makes its way to the liver.
Most of the alcohol that someone drinks — about 90% to 95% — is broken down by the liver. Liver cells convert ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, into another chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical responsible for hangover symptoms; this chemical is converted into acetate by the body. Acetate is 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.
The buildup of alcohol in the bloodstream occurs when a person consumes more alcohol than their liver can effectively process in one go. 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.
Although the majority of alcohol is broken down by the liver, around 5% to 10% will be removed through other means, such as sweating, urination, and exhalation.
Alcohol Detection in Urine
The body eliminates only a small amount of the alcohol a person consumes through their urine, typically between 1% and 2%. Within an hour of drinking, the ethanol present in alcohol can be detected in a person’s urine, and it usually remains detectable for up to 12 hours following consumption. Nevertheless, this duration may differ based on various individual factors.
Does Alcohol Show Up on a Drug Test?
Alcohol can be detected in tests that are specifically designed to check for its presence. Generally, in a normal drug test taken for employment purposes, alcohol is not checked. However, in specific cases, like when there is an accident in a workplace or for legal reasons, alcohol may be checked for separately.
Alcohol Testing Methods
There are four main methods of testing for alcohol. These include:
- Breath tests: Breathalyzers are portable and easy to use, making them a popular method of testing for alcohol, especially with law enforcement.
- Blood tests: Blood tests are the most accurate way of testing someone’s BAC, but they are more invasive and require medical training to perform.
- Saliva tests: Saliva tests are best for determining whether someone has used alcohol — not to measure BAC. These tests are less practical than testing blood or breath.
- Urine tests: Urine testing is normally only used when other forms of alcohol testing are not available. It is harder to get an accurate BAC when relying on a urine test. While urine testing does not provide good information on the amount of alcohol present, urine ethyl glucuronide testing can indicate whether alcohol was used for up to 72 hours after use, which is longer than many other forms of testing can.
Factors Affecting Alcohol Detection
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.
Gender, body fat and menstruation
The human body uses an enzyme called dehydrogenase to metabolize alcohol in the liver. However, women tend to have lower levels of this enzyme than men, which can affect their blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Additionally, women typically have a higher ratio of body fat to muscle and a lower overall water weight compared to men, which can also impact their BAC. Typically, women tend to reach higher levels of intoxication than men when consuming the same amount of alcohol, all other factors being equal or relative.
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.
Type of alcoholic beverages consumed
Drinks that contain higher levels of alcohol or greater alcohol by volume (ABV) percentages (e.g., spirits and some wines) are absorbed more quickly by the body. This can then lead to a greater level of intoxication. Increased absorption can occur with carbonated or sparkling drinks, such as champagne or liquor mixed with soda, due to the increased pressure in the stomach and intestines caused by carbonation.
Full or empty stomach
Eating before drinking alcohol can help to slow down the alcohol’s effects on the body. When alcohol is consumed on an empty stomach, it can quickly reach its peak and cause a person to become drunk faster. This can happen within just 30 minutes after drinking, depending on how much alcohol is consumed. Eating foods high in protein can help reduce the amount of alcohol that is absorbed by the body, making it easier to manage the effects of alcohol.
Individual alcohol tolerance
Some people’s bodies are better at processing alcohol than others because of their genes. When a certain liver enzyme (ALDH2) doesn’t work properly, the body can’t handle alcohol in the usual way. This can cause a sudden increase in acetaldehyde levels, which can make a person feel unwell after drinking alcohol. These unpleasant side effects include a flushed face, reddening of the skin — especially in the face or neck — dizziness, hot sensations, nausea/vomiting and heart palpitations.
Overall physical and mental health
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. This is especially true for individuals already struggling with a mood or mental health disorder.
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. This is often due to the interaction of alcohol with medications used to manage these conditions. The body may struggle to metabolize alcohol due to liver-related conditions.
How Accurate Are Alcohol Urine Tests?
Checking for alcohol in someone’s system can be done through a urine test. This is a cheap, less intrusive method that can tell if someone has consumed alcohol over a longer period of time. It’s because alcohol can be detected in the urine for up to five days after drinking.
However, 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, and 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.
EtG Alcohol Test
Ethyl glucuronide (EtG) alcohol tests are a type of urine test used to detect alcohol use. Instead of looking for alcohol directly, these tests look for a byproduct of alcohol use called EtG. It can be detected in the urine for up to 80 hours, making these tests quite sensitive and accurate even for small amounts of alcohol use. It’s important to note that a positive EtG test could also happen in people who don’t drink alcohol but use products that contain it, such as mouthwash.
False Positives in Alcohol Testing
Using a test called EtG/EtS urine testing to detect alcohol intake can sometimes produce wrong results that can have serious consequences. A study conducted in 2006 found that people who used mouthwash containing 12% ethanol could test positive for alcohol, even if they didn’t drink any. This means that people who use mouthwash as directed could get a false positive result on a drug test.
The study recommends that all positive EtG results should be reviewed by a healthcare professional.
Products To Avoid Before a Drug Test
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:
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizers
- Cleaning products
- Breath sprays
- Foods that contain trace amounts of alcohol
- Hair dyes
Anything with trace amounts of alcohol could cause a false-positive EtG test, even when only used externally.
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