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Breath alcohol test

A breath alcohol test determines how much alcohol is in your blood by measuring the amount of alcohol in the air you breathe out (exhale).

Alternative Names

Alcohol test - breath

How the test is performed

There are various brands of breath alcohol tests. Each one uses a different method to test the level of alcohol in the breath. The machine may be electronic or manual.

One common manual tester requires you to blow up a balloon in one continuous breath until it is full, then release the air into a glass tube. The tube is filled with bands of yellow crystals. The bands in the tube change colors (from yellow to green), depending on the alcohol content. Carefully read the instructions before using the test to make sure you get an accurate result.

If an electronic alcohol meter is used, follow the instructions that come with the meter.

How to prepare for the test

Wait 15 minutes after drinking an alcoholic beverage and 1 minute after smoking before starting the test.

How the test will feel

There is no discomfort.

Why the test is performed

When you drink alcohol, the amount of alcohol in your blood goes up. This is called your blood-alcohol level.

When the amount of alcohol in the blood reaches 0.02 - 0.03%, you may feel a relaxing "high."

When that percentage reaches 0.05 - 0.10%, you have reduced muscular coordination, a longer reaction time, and impaired judgment.

Driving and operating machinery under the influence of alcohol is dangerous. A person with an alcohol level of 0.08% and above is considered legally intoxicated (drunk) in most states. (Some states have lower levels than others.)

The alcohol content of exhaled air accurately reflects the alcohol content of the blood.

Normal Values

Normal is when the blood alcohol levels are not elevated.

What abnormal results mean

When one band is green, it means that the blood-alcohol level is 0.05% or lower. Two green bands mean levels of 0.05% to 0.10%. Three green bands indicate levels between 0.10% and 0.15%.

What the risks are

There are no risks.

Special considerations

The test does not take into account the driving abilities of the test subject. Driving abilities vary among people with the same blood-alcohol levels. Some people with blood-alcohol levels below 0.05% may not be able to safely drive. For occasional drinkers, judgment problems occur at blood-alcohol levels of just 0.02%.

The breath alcohol test helps you to know how much alcohol it takes to raise the blood-alcohol level to a dangerous level. Each person's response to alcohol varies. The test may help you make better decisions about driving after drinking.

References

Bitterman RA. Medicolegal issues and risk management. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 202.

Updated: 7/4/2012

Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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