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Lab Tests for Alcohol Use

In medical settings, alcohol levels are measured using blood and urine samples. Law enforcement officials tend to use a Breathalyser test that detects alcohol in one's breath.

Alcohol will be detected in blood in the hours after being consumed. Levels decrease at a rate of about 15mg/dl (or 0.015%) per hour, which is the amount of alcohol contained in approximately one drink. The same is true of breath alcohol tests.

Urine tests involve measuring ethyl glucoronide (EtG), a metabolite of alcohol that remains detectable in urine about four times longer than ethanol. Urine tests can thus be used to determine whether an individual has consumed alcohol up to a few days after their last drink.

Long-term heavy alcohol use can also lead to elevations of certain biological markers, namely carbohydrate-deficient transferrin (CDT), gamma-glutamyltransferase (GGT) and mean corpuscular erythrocyte volume (MCV). Of these, CDT seems to be the most sensitive and reliable measure for detecting alcohol use disorders in people [ref], but looking at all three of these markers together is probably the best way to assess for long-term alcohol use, especially in individuals who do not have other medical illnesses such as liver problems.


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