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How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your System?

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

February 5, 2019

The length of time alcohol stays in the body depends on a variety of factors including age, weight, type of drink, and many more. Knowing how alcohol works and how long it stays in the system can help protect an individual from developing a life-threatening addiction.

Alcohol use, abuse, and addiction are all prevalent within our country. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), in 2014, 71 percent of individuals aged 18 and older had consumed alcohol within the past year; of this number they report that a staggering 16.3 million Americans fit the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. It is because of this prevalence, that a question such as this—or any question concerning alcohol use—warrants an in-depth answer. In order to better protect ourselves and our loved ones from risks of abuse and addiction, it is imperative we understand the facts and risks of alcohol consumption, including understanding how long this toxin remains in your body after consumption.

As simple as this question may seem, it is, in part, one that requires a more involved answer than simply offering a rate of time. Why is this? In order for alcohol to exit your system, it has to be metabolized by your body, a complex process with many steps, and even many variables. Why is it important to know how long alcohol stays in your system? Some people may be concerned about breast feeding or operating a vehicle, and others, rightly so, may be concerned about responsibly monitoring their intake during a social event.

How Does Your Body Metabolize Alcohol?

In the time between consumption and excretion, alcohol is metabolized within your body in various ways. Once the alcohol travels to your stomach, the first step of full metabolism begins. Here, the alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream as it passes over your stomach lining, it is estimated that up to 20 percent of the alcohol may be absorbed this way. The remaining percentage (generally around 80 percent) then travels to the small intestine, where it is further absorbed. A small amount of alcohol is not absorbed by your body, instead being unprocessed and released by your breath, sweat, or urine; some sources estimate this amount to be as high as ten percent.

Once the alcohol passes from your small intestine into your bloodstream, a variety of chemical processes begin. The liver is your body’s foremost organ for detoxification and contains a chemical called alcohol dehydrogenase, which breaks the alcohol down into a toxic byproduct called acetaldehyde. Fortunately, in the situation when your body isn’t overwhelmed with large amounts of alcohol, this chemical is quickly changed into another, more benign chemical. This change occurs due to a chemical called aldehyde dehydrogenase, resulting in acetate, which is then changed into simply carbon dioxide and water.

This system is efficient, however, in certain cases your body may not be able to process the alcohol as quickly as it should. It is in instances of binge drinking when too much alcohol is present, where this process may be impeded and become of concern. When an excess of alcohol is present, such as in this case, or in that of a chronic drinker, two other enzymes may be used within metabolism, called CYP2E1 and catalase. Beyond this, certain other factors alter this process beginning to end, from absorption, to the metabolism, and finally, to the excretion of alcohol.

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What Is The Typical Rate By Which Alcohol Is Eliminated?

Your body can only process a given amount of alcohol within an hour, most typically what is considered one standard drink; any more than this, and your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises as your body struggles to keep up. According to Bowling Green State University, “Alcohol leaves the body at an average rate of 0.015 g/100mL/hour, which is the same as reducing your BAC level by 0.015 per hour.” In example, as explained by Mental Health Daily, if a person consumed enough alcohol to reach a 0.10 percent BAC (roughly five standards drinks for a man and three for a woman), at the rate of reduction of 0.015 per hour, it would take seven hours for the alcohol to be fully eliminated from their system resulting in a BAC of zero.

The unfortunate fact about drinking, especially binge drinking, is that a person often attempts to do the math in their head or base their assessment only on how they feel, negating any other factors that could influence this number (such as those that follow). This can be worrisome and dangerous, as a person may drink more, encountering risks of alcohol poisoning, or attempt to operate a vehicle. Mental Health Daily tells us that at this BAC of 0.10, it would typically take a person two hours before they fell under a legal limit of 0.08, a common percentage in many states.

Factors That Alter The Speed Of Alcohol Absorption And Metabolism

Though there is a standard rate by which alcohol is processed, there is not a hard and fast rate by which every person processes and eliminates alcohol. This may seem confusing. This standard rate applies to a metabolic function when it is unchanged and unaffected by outside influences; but the truth is—no person exists in a vacuum, that is that say their body, and subsequently the metabolism and excretion of alcohol, are influenced by numerous things, including:

Nature of the drink — Carbonation within a drink, such as that which exists with the alcohol already, as in champagne, or that which is added, such as soda mixed with liquor, can actually increase the rate of absorption into your stomach’s lining.

How much you consumed — If a person is slowly sipping one standard drink over an hour, their body is typically able to process the alcohol efficiently; however, if another person is binge drinking, instead consuming several servings of a standard drink in that same hour, their body will become overburdened with alcohol and not be able to process it as efficiently. Thus, at the end of the hour, the former person will have a much lower BAC than the latter, while also seeing the alcohol leave in its entirety, quicker.

Amount of food in your stomach — Alcohol is absorbed more readily on an empty stomach, as the alcohol has unobstructed access to a greater area of your stomach’s lining. In the presence of food, a portion of the alcohol may be absorbed into the food, thus delaying the absorption.

Medications — Certain medications can greatly impact the way your body metabolizes alcohol, which is why a person needs to be very careful when mixing alcohol with any other medication or drug.

Metabolism — Every person’s physiology is different; due to this, every person may absorb and metabolize alcohol in a slightly different way. Paired with other factors, this may slow or quicken the overall process.

Liver size — The size of this important detoxification organ varies, due to this, some people may process alcohol at a different rate.

Body size — This old adage is actually true. Individuals with a greater overall mass may not feel the effects as quickly as a smaller person.

Gender — Typically, women have a tendency to absorb alcohol quicker and process it less efficiently than a man. This is for several reasons:

  • Body fat: Typically, men have less body fat than women, instead having a higher ratio of muscle mass. Muscle tissue absorbs alcohol more readily than fat, thus when a man consumes alcohol, more alcohol may be temporarily absorbed into the muscle tissue, delaying its absorption into the gastrointestinal system and bloodstream.
  • Water content: According to Brown University, men also have more water in their body versus women, 61 percent and 52 percent, respectively; a factor that enables a man to more efficiently dilute the alcohol, thus delaying the absorption.
  • Metabolic difference: Women have less of the critical liver enzyme dehydrogenase, which is responsible for breaking down alcohol, thus it takes longer for a woman’s body to metabolize alcohol.
  • Hormones: Estrogen, a predominant sex hormone in women, can actually slow down the elimination process. Because of this, women who experience changes in this chemical due to birth control pills or premenstrual syndrome may experience delays.

Age — Older adults have less water in their body, thus when the alcohol enters a person’s system, it is not diluted as readily as it would be in a younger person’s body, due to this, older adults may have higher BAC levels than a younger person, even when consuming equal amounts of alcohol.

Race — Certain individuals, especially those of Asian descent, have variations in two key chemical components that are involved in the metabolism of alcohol. Because of this, their bodies may either process the alcohol into the byproduct acetaldehyde more quickly, or fail to process this byproduct into acetate and out from the system.

You may be curious to know if you can change this process. Summed up succinctly, BGSU states “Nothing will speed up the rate of detoxification, but the effective metabolism of alcohol can be limited.” What this means is that various factors included above may be altered intentionally by a person, which may then delay the metabolism of the alcohol, however, once your liver begins the process of detoxification, you cannot change the rate.

It May Surprise You How Long Alcohol Can Be Detected In Your System

There are various ways to detect the presence of alcohol in a person’s body, with perhaps the most well-known being a breathalyzer test, the most common means of determining a person’s blood alcohol content. This device monitors the alcohol that has passed from your blood to your breath. Beyond this, alcohol may yet be detected within your body, in varying ways, and for a varying duration of time. The following are the amounts of time alcohol can be detected in other body substances:

  • Blood: Approximately 12 hours
  • Urine: The duration of time varies, with research suggesting that certain alcohol metabolites may be detected anywhere from 3-5 days in a urine specimen; one study detected 100 percent of the metabolite EtG (one that is often thought to be the most reliable for these tests), at just under 40 hours after consumption.
  • Hair: A sampling of information from hair test manufacturers shows most claim that the presence of alcohol metabolites may be documented up to 90 days.

Though the length of time is disputable and still under research for some tests, these numbers may be worth considering as some court orders deem individuals to take random tests, including urine and hair.

Consider The Impact Alcohol Has Even After It Leaves Your System

Now that we understand the process and rate by which alcohol exits a person’s body, it is important to also consider how long this alcohol consumption may actually affect a person. Though many of alcohol’s more visible effects wane as the level within your body drops, certain damage may linger long after. Drinking when you have an alcohol use disorder creates far-reaching implications.

Alcohol abuse, including binge drinking, and chronic patterns of drinking associated with an alcohol addiction raise your risk of certain dangers, illnesses, and diseases. These include various mental health disorders, short-term and more lasting brain damage, disease and damage to other organs, including the liver, kidneys, and heart; and certain types of cancer. Alcohol is not merely a recreational drug—it is a drug that has the capacity to irrevocably alter your health and your life.

Don’t Let Alcohol Keep Damaging Your Life, Body, Or Brain

We understand that it can be hard to abstain from drinking, especially when our culture engages alcohol consumption on so many levels; however, we also understand how dangerous drinking can be. If you, or someone you love, is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, please don’t turn away from the risks. It can be daunting to admit you have a problem, but our compassionate staff at RehabCenter.net is here to help you every step of the way, from providing you with more resources, to helping you discover your treatment options. Contact us today.

Bowling Green State University - Alcohol Metabolism

Brown University - Alcohol and Your Body

Mental Health Daily - How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your System?

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Metabolism: An Update

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