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Ethanol: The ingredient that can skew a breath or urine test

Living in Maryland, there is certainly no shortage of things to do, especially at night -- with plenty of clubs, bars and restaurants to choose from. 

Heading out for the night, it's always a good idea to have a game plan for how you are going to get somewhere and how you are going to get home. For those who decide to be the safe ride home for friends, it may surprise you to learn that you can still end up arrested for drunk driving if you recently took cold medicine. 

How does that happen?

Let's say you've been suffering from a cold all week, so you take some cold medication before you meet up with your friends. There's an ingredient called ethyl alcohol in many cold medications that can actually skew the results of a breath or urine test.

Here are some things to know about cold medications:

  • Cough syrups, flu medications or any number of other over-the-counter drugs often contain ethyl alcohol as a main ingredient. Some of these medications also produce side effects that may impede your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. If a police officer thinks you're swerving or do not seem to be in complete control of your vehicle, he or she may pull you over on suspicion of drunk driving.
  • You might think that informing the police officer you took cold medicine would be enough to rectify the situation. In reality, situations like this often get a whole lot worse before they get better. It's conceivable that an officer might wind up placing you under arrest.
  • You have more than your medications to worry about. There are certain foods you can eat that can cause breath or urine tests to go awry as well. Many herbal or flavor extracts have ethanol in them.
  • Certain mouthwashes or breath-freshening strips can also cause skewed results.
  • As for non-alcoholic beverages, such as O'Douls or Sharps beers, they actually do have trace amounts of alcohol in them. It's just that the amount is so minimal that manufacturers market their products as non-alcoholic beverages. Keep that in mind if a police officer asks you to take a breath test.

Facing DUI charges when you didn't consume alcohol -- or literally had one drink -- might make you feel like you're living in a bad dream. Rather than panic, however, it's best if you understand ahead of time what your rights are and have a plan for how to move forward and challenge the charge, if necessary.

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