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Alternative Names Return to topAlcohol test - breath
Definition Return to top
A breath alcohol test roughly determines how much alcohol is in your blood by measuring the amount of alcohol in the air you breathe out (exhale).
How the Test is Performed Return to top
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 Return to top
Wait 15 minutes after drinking an alcoholic beverage and 1 minute after smoking before starting the test.
How the Test Will Feel Return to top
There is no discomfort.
Why the Test is Performed Return to top
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 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 Results Return to top
Normal is when the blood alcohol levels are not elevated.
What Abnormal Results Mean Return to top
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%.
Risks Return to top
There are no risks.
Considerations Return to top
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, judgement 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 Return to top
Barnosky AR, Chapman DK, Roth VS. Occupational medicine and cccupational health in the emergency department. In: Marx J, ed. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 6th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2006:chap 199.Update Date: 7/23/2008 Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington, Clinic. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.