How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

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Contrary to popular misconceptions, people won’t absorb alcohol faster if they try to “sleep it off” or drink more water or coffee. This is because the human body has a specific mechanism of processing alcohol that is similar for most individuals. On the other hand, every person reacts differently to alcohol intoxication and the amount of time people feel the effects of alcohol will differ depending on numerous factors. It’s important to stop drinking once we experience signs of impairment because we risk alcohol overdose, which can result in a fatal outcome.1

How Does the Body Process Alcohol?

Alcoholic beverages are made from ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol. Human bodies are good at processing ethyl alcohol because it’s abundant in nature and is found in a wide range of food we consume daily, from fresh fruit to orange juice and yeast used to make bread. The abundance of ethyl alcohol in nature means people and animals have to have a mechanism to break it down so it won’t accumulate in the body making them intoxicated all the time.2

When people drink, roughly 2 to 8% of alcohol consumed is removed through urine or it evaporates through sweating and breathing. The remaining 92 to 98% is then processed by the human body. The body processes ethanol by converting the ethyl alcohol into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic poison so the body then further breaks it down into acetic acid radicals, which are also called acetyl radicals.2

A small amount of alcohol consumed is absorbed directly into the mouth by a mucosal membrane and the tongue. The rest travels to the stomach where it gets directly absorbed into the bloodstream after coming into contact with the tissue lining of the stomach and then the small intestine. Once the alcohol enters the bloodstream it’s directly sent to all organs of the body. The organ that does the heaviest lifting in the process of detoxifying the body from alcohol is the liver. This is the main reason why the liver tends to be the most vulnerable organ when it comes to possible complications and symptoms related to alcoholism.3

However, the liver is not the only organ affected by alcohol abuse. Alcohol gets into direct contact with all tissues of the body excluding bones and fat, penetrating almost 70% of all bodily tissue. The fact that alcohol gets to interact with all the organs of the human body through the bloodstream is one of the main reasons why chronic consumption of alcohol is so damaging to many aspects of our physical and mental health. Long-term alcohol abuse damages the heart, lungs, brain, muscles, pancreas, and gastrointestinal system.4

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

For most healthy individuals, blood flows through the body circulating within the 90-second timeframe. This enables alcohol to influence people’s behavior and decision-making in a very short amount of time. Once we get intoxicated, alcohol lowers our inhibitions, making our response time longer and our actions more erratic and less predictable. This can lead to reckless behavior and dangerous situations, especially if we find ourselves behind the wheel or operating tools or machinery.5

The level of alcohol intoxication is determined by measuring the amount of alcohol in the blood. Blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, is a number that shows the percentage of alcohol in the bloodstream at a given moment. Different alcoholic beverages contain different amounts of alcohol per serving. Sometimes the same type of drink can differ greatly in the amount of alcohol per serving. For instance, beers can range from 3% for light beers to more than 7% in the case of stronger varieties.6

For persons who are 21 or older, it’s illegal to operate motor vehicles in the US, including boats, airplanes, and other commercial vehicles, if their BAC level is 0.08% or higher. In the state of Utah, the laws are stricter, with a BAC level of 0.05% or higher considered as driving under the influence. For drivers who are younger than 21, BAC levels permitted range from a zero-tolerance policy of 0.00% to 0.02 in most states. People who score higher than 0.2% on their BAC tests may need to rethink their drinking habits and seek professional help.7

If you’re interested in learning more about specific drinks and how they affect your BAC levels, you can try this online BAC calculator that will help you make an approximate estimate of the alcohol content in your body. Be careful when using the BAC calculator since results are mostly informative so it’s advised to err on the side of caution. Always keep in mind that it takes at least 30 minutes for alcohol to kick in when you’re trying to calculate the amount of alcohol in your system.8

What are the Factors That Influence How Alcohol Is Metabolized Inside the Body?

Although most persons metabolize alcohol in the same way, there are numerous factors that determine how we react to alcohol intoxication. The standard drink of alcohol in the US contains roughly 13 to 15 grams of pure alcohol. The average male will metabolize one standard alcoholic drink per hour. This means that after one hour, a healthy body will metabolize the alcohol and the BAC level will be 0. Still, there are several factors that can influence alcohol processing, including:9

  • Age – As people get older, their organs lose some of their functionality. This is especially true of the liver, which plays a major role in alcohol processing. Body water content and liver mass also decrease with age that additionally slows down alcohol processing speeds.
  • Sex – Livers of men and women have comparable alcohol-eliminating properties. However, major reasons that contribute to the fact that women process alcohol slightly slower than men are that they have a higher percentage of body fat, lower percentage of body water, and lower concentration of enzymes that metabolize alcohol when it reaches the stomach.
  • Weight – Weight itself doesn’t impact alcohol processing to a great extent but body composition plays a big role in alcohol processing. High-water muscle tissue absorbs alcohol much better than fatty tissue that has lower water content. This is the reason why people with higher body fat exhibit higher concentrations of BAC.
  • Food – The presence of food in the stomach obstructs alcohol from entering into the bloodstream through contact with the stomach lining tissue. Food can also soak up the alcohol preventing it from passing into the small intestine and entering the bloodstream.
  • Genetics and race – Certain studies show small differences between different races in the speed of elimination of alcohol from the body. Some attribute this to differences in liver mass but more research needs to be done before these results are pronounced conclusive.
  • Overall health – Healthy Persons will metabolize alcohol faster than those who suffer from certain health issues. This is especially true of people who have gastrointestinal or liver problems.
  • Drugs and medication – Certain substances react with alcohol affecting the way it’s processed in the body. If you are taking medication, it’s advised to consult your doctor about the ways they interact with alcohol before you engage in drinking.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in the Body?

The amount of time it takes for alcohol to completely leave the body will depend on the amount of alcohol consumed. An adult male will eliminate approximately 14 grams of pure ethanol per hour. This amount of alcohol is used as a measurement of standard drinks in the US. A standard drink of alcohol will equate to 12 fluid ounces (or standard can) of beer, 5 fl-oz (one glass) of wine, or 1.5 fl-oz (one serving) of 80-proof distilled spirits (including vodka, whiskey, or tequila type liquor).10

You may start feeling the effects of alcohol as early as 15 minutes after consumption, especially on an empty stomach. Alcohol will reach its peak concentration in the blood within 60 to 90 minutes from the last drink. After this point, the body will start working on breaking the alcohol down and eliminating it from the bloodstream. Therefore, if you had 3 standard drinks, your body will need at least 3 hours to process the alcohol consumed, and if you had 6 drinks, for instance, it will take at least 6 hours to eliminate it from the system.10

How to Diagnose Alcohol Content in the Body?

Even though the body metabolizes alcohol pretty fast, it can still be detected by various tests for far longer than it takes to get it out of the bloodstream. Different tests detect alcohol in different ways; with some modern tests able to detect its presence days after a person has had the last drink. Consult the table below to see for how long time alcohol can be detected within different parts of the body.11

Alcohol Breath Test

An alcohol breath test, also known as a breathalyzer, is mostly used by police officers to test drivers for their BAC levels in relation to driving under the influence of alcohol. The maximum level of alcohol that can be tested by a breathalyzer is 220 μg/100 ml air. According to the CDC statistics, 32 people die every day in the US in traffic accidents that were caused by alcohol-impaired drivers.12

Alcohol Blood Test

An alcohol blood test will show the amount of alcohol in people’s blood samples. It’s used to test people who are suspected of drinking recently. Although it can detect alcohol in the blood for up to 12 hours after the last drink, it will have the highest degree of accuracy if used within 6 to 8 hours after drinking. The test can also be used to accurately measure the amount of alcohol consumed within that period. If you score more than 0.4% of BAC, you are in danger of lasting damage from alcohol poisoning which can result in coma, long-term brain damage, or death from alcohol overdose.13

Alcohol Urine Test

Urine tests for alcohol are used because they can detect alcohol consumption for longer periods than blood or breath tests. When a person consumes alcohol, no matter how small the amount, ethyl glucuronide (EtG), which is a byproduct of ethanol, is formed in the body. Alcohol urine tests can be used to detect the presence of EtG in urine for as long as 72 hours and even longer if heavy amounts of alcohol were consumed.14

Saliva Test for Alcohol

The saliva test for alcohol is also known as the mouth swab test. Saliva tests also work by detecting the presence of EtG. Mouth swab tests can be used to detect EtG in the oral fluid of the mouth for up to 24 hours. The main benefit of saliva tests is that they show results very quickly, sometimes in less than 20 seconds. Saliva tests for alcohol can accurately detect BAC levels of at least 0.02%. The highest amount of alcohol concentration they can detect in oral fluid is 0.3% BAC.15

Alcohol Hair Follicle Test

The main advantage of an alcohol hair follicle test is that it can detect alcohol consumption through the presence of EtG for a very long time. For long-term and severe users it can detect the presence of alcohol for as much as 6 months. The main drawback is that the accuracy of the test depends on the length of the hair. Approximately 1 cm of hair will show alcohol consumption from the previous month. However, if head hair isn’t available, tests can be used on body hair from other areas.16

Get Help for Alcohol Use Disorder in Las Vegas, Nevada

According to the NSSATS survey of treatment facilities, there were 109 rehab centers in Nevada in 2020 that treated 11,573 patients. This represents a significant rise from 82 facilities that treated 7,218 patients in 2011. Out of those 109 available facilities in Nevada, 37 offered treatments for alcohol use disorder, while 45 centers provided treatment for patients who suffer from the co-occurrence of alcohol and drug use known as dual diagnosis.17

If you’re struggling with alcohol use disorder issues and are looking for a high-quality alcohol abuse rehab facility in Nevada, be sure to check out American Addiction Centers’ Desert Hope Treatment Center. It’s located in the metropolitan area of Las Vegas and is a 10-minute drive away from Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. Desert Hope specializes in proven treatment approaches that deal with various stages of alcohol use disorder. It offers individualized programs that aim at full-person recovery, including:

  • Medical Detox Programs
  • Individual & Group Therapy
  • Inpatient & Live-in Rehab
  • Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorder Treatment
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)
  • Aftercare planning and access to our alumni network

If you want to learn more about Desert Hope, call a confidential alcohol hotline that is available 24/7. Your call carries no obligation to enter into treatment and is absolutely free of charge. Knowledgeable staff will be happy to answer all your questions regarding available treatment procedures, accepted payment methods, details of your insurance coverage, benefits that you are entitled to, and all the information about the facility itself.

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