A breathalyzer can detect alcohol on the breath for up to 24 hours. However, the timeframe varies depending on the individual and the quantity of alcohol they consume.

The detection time varies with a person’s metabolism of alcohol, which is affected by many factors, including weight and age.

In the United States, around 16% of adults report binge drinking, with 25% doing so at least once per week. Consuming an excessive amount of alcohol in a short time can cause serious consequences. These may include car accidents, chronic diseases, or alcohol poisoning.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, around 32 people die every day from alcohol-related car accidents in the U.S. This amounted to almost 12,000 people in 2020 alone.

This article explores how a breathalyzer works, how long it can detect alcohol, and what to do if someone thinks they have an alcohol use disorder. The article also discusses alcohol poisoning.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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A breathalyzer is a device that can measure the amount of alcohol present in the breath.

The U.S. government has approved several different devices for official use. A breathalyzer must meet certain criteria to gain approval for law enforcement use.

For example, an approved breathalyzer must print three identical copies of the results from each breath test. It also needs to assign a unique number to each test and print certain information on each copy. Finally, these devices need to distinguish acetone from alcohol at specific levels.

To pass a breathalyzer test in the U.S., an individual must have a blood alcohol level lower than 0.08%.

When blood alcohol levels are above 0.08%, individuals may experience effects of alcohol intoxication such as:

These and other effects of alcohol can seriously inhibit a person’s ability to safely operate a vehicle. Portable breathalyzers allow law enforcement to determine whether a driver is a risk to themselves and others on the road.

Dangers of drinking and driving

In 2020, 2,041 people died from car accidents caused by drivers who had blood alcohol concentrations below 0.08%. Lower concentrations of blood alcohol can still negatively impact vision, attention, and coordination.

Almost 1 in 3 people who die from drunk driving incidents are pedestrians, passengers, or drivers of other vehicles. Driving with any amount of alcohol in the system puts many people at risk.

Breathalyzer tests can help law enforcement identify impaired drivers before they cause harm. However, it is best practice for drivers to avoid driving after drinking alcohol. Getting a ride from a friend or calling a taxi after drinking could be a lifesaving decision.

The length of time a breathalyzer can detect alcohol in the breath varies between individuals. In some cases, the breathalyzer may detect alcohol for up to 12 hours. In other individuals, the breathalyzer test may work for twice that long.

Although the average person metabolizes about 1 alcoholic drink per hour, this rate varies. Some factors that influence this variability include:

Older individuals metabolize alcohol more slowly, so it may stay in the breath longer. In general, females metabolize alcohol more slowly than males, so alcohol can remain in their system for more time.

In cases where a breathalyzer test gives an incorrect or inconclusive result, other tests are available. These include blood, urine, and hair analyses.

A blood test can detect blood alcohol for up to 12 hours after an individual has had a drink. A urine test can detect alcohol for up to 5 days after drinking, depending on the type of test. And a hair follicle test can detect alcohol for up to 90 days.

Another risk of alcohol overuse is alcohol use disorder. People who begin drinking at an early age or a family history of alcohol overuse are at a higher risk of developing this condition. Individuals with mental health concerns are also more at risk.

People with alcohol use disorder have difficulty controlling their alcohol intake. They may continue to drink despite the negative consequences on their health and relationships.

Chronic alcohol abuse may also lead to dangerous situations. Driving while intoxicated can lead to accidents and even death.

Alcohol use disorder also increases the risk of depression and suicide. It can also cause long-term health effects, such as cancer, liver disease, and brain damage.

People who think they are experiencing alcohol use disorder should visit a medical professional to review treatment options. With the proper support from a medical team, recovery from alcohol use disorder is possible.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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When an individual consumes too much alcohol in a short time, it can lead to a condition known as alcohol poisoning.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning may include:

High levels of alcohol can also impair a person’s gag reflex. As a result, individuals who overuse alcohol may be at risk of choking to death after vomiting.

In certain cases, alcohol poisoning can even lead to long-term brain damage. Anyone who shows signs of alcohol poisoning needs emergency medical attention right away.

If someone who has been drinking exhibits these or other symptoms, another person should call 911 immediately. They should not leave the person with these symptoms alone and try to keep them awake. If they begin to vomit, another person should make sure they are sitting up or turned to the side to keep them from choking.

A breathalyzer is a device that measures a person’s alcohol concentration through a breath sample. These devices can detect alcohol for up to 24 hours, but this detection window varies between individuals.

Driving under the influence of alcohol can lead to serious harm for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Individuals experiencing difficulty with alcohol use should seek professional support. Similarly, if a person suspects someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, they should contact the emergency services by calling 911 immediately.