How Long Do Breathalyzers Detect Alcohol?

Written by J. Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Imagine: you’re out with friends, and you have a drink or two. It’s nothing out of the normal, but as the evening winds down, you get ready to hop in your car and go home. You put the keys in the ignition and realize you are still a little buzzed. Anxious thoughts start to cloud your mind, and you wonder if you should make the drive home or find another means of transportation. You know you should never drive impaired, but if you had just one or two drinks, would alcohol show up on a breathalyzer test? The answer is different for everyone.

If you’ve ever had alcohol in your life, you’ve probably experienced a similar situation. After drinking any amount of alcohol, it’s always best to play it safe and not get behind the wheel while still intoxicated. So, how do you know when it’s okay to drive? In this article, we’ll answer the question: how long do breathalzyers detect alcohol?

How Does a Breathalyzer Work?

Breathalyzers are devices used to gauge what a person’s blood alcohol content is. The device takes a reading after a person exhales into it. Breathalyzers are most often used in the following situations:

  • When a driver is pulled over and is suspected to have been drinking
  • In substance abuse centers
  • In work places, typically for employees that work with heavy-duty machinery
  • At clinics when the facility does not find taking a urine or blood sample to be necessary

The breathalyzer is the easiest on-site method. If you are at a police station for a driving offense, urine or blood samples may be requested of you. The two primary types of breathalyzer technology used in hand-held devices are 1) electrochemical fuel cell or 2) semiconductor oxide sensors. Both measure the rate of oxidizing alcohol. The infrared spectrophotometer breathalyzer equipment is larger and located in police stations.

Some breathalyzers are faulty and will give you inaccurate readings due to body temperature, acid reflux or a bloody mouth. Natural compounds, like “ketones,” can be mistaken for alcohol in the bloodstream also.

The Variables: How Long Do Breathalyzers Detect Alcohol?

Alcohol is either digested and metabolized by the body or excreted in sweat, urine, or breath. On an empty stomach, the average man absorbs 20% of the alcohol straight into his bloodstream. Men and women vary in terms of how fast their bodies metabolize or process alcohol. Weight, height, age, and race are all factors for the drinker. The amount of food in your stomach is also a variable. Finally, the type of alcohol (wine, beer, or liquor), rate of consumption, and number of drinks consumed will determine how fast your body burns through alcohol.

Experts estimate that the average man will break down alcohol at a rate of 0.015 BAC per hour. Thus, if your BAC is 0.030, it would take two hours to have all the alcohol leave your system.

For example, let’s say two people drink the exact same amount of alcohol in the same amount of time. Person 1 is a woman who is five feet tall and 100 pounds, while Person 2 is a male who is 6’3″ and 200 pounds. Because of their size, Person 1 would have a much higher blood alcohol content for a longer amount of time.

Other Ways To Determine Blood Alcohol Content

According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can determine your blood alcohol content with just a few pieces of information. You need the number of ounces of the beverage you consumed, the alcohol percentage in the beverage, your weight, and the number of hours you have been drinking. Then, you can plug that information into the clinic’s calculator to get an accurate answer. The more you drink in a shorter amount of time, the higher your blood alcohol content will be.

The courts remind you that drinking and driving is not illegal, “impaired driving” is illegal. But most states have made the BAC so low that this is a distinction without a difference. Usually, a police officer will take an “impaired driver” to the police station to prevent him from driving, book him and get a more reliable blood test.

How to Lower to Blood Alcohol Content

Time is the only answer to lowering your blood alcohol content. If you have ever been drunk, you probably know from personal experience that sleeping, drinking water and coffee, and eating will make you feel better. You might even feel more alert, but none of those things will actually lower your blood alchol content. You end up being a full, caffienated drunk person, but nonetheless – you’re still just as intoxicated. Overtime, your bloodstream will start to clear out the alcohol, and you will sober up.

To learn more about this subject. here’s a more in-depth look at How to Calculate Blood Alcohol Content.

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