Alcohol is a major component of the majority of our social lives and can be quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, it comes with a fair amount of baggage. Alcohol is an addictive substance which can lead to health, financial, and even legal issues.
And despite alcohol’s lengthy history with humankind, it can still be rather tricky to pinpoint how much is enough or too much. That brings us to the topic at hand: how long does alcohol stay in your system? In this post, we’ll provide a little clarity to this murky area of alcohol consumption.
How Alcohol Is Absorbed In Our System
As you’ll see in the following sections, there are numerous factors that determine how long alcohol will stay in your system. But what stays the same is how your body processes the alcohol.
Generally speaking, how much alcohol you consume and the speed at which your body processes it will determine how long alcohol stays in your system. Thankfully, alcohol is metabolized more quickly than other substances.
Alcohol is generally consumed in the same way: you drink it. The liquid enters your mouth and travels down your esophagus to the stomach, where metabolization begins. Here, some of the alcohol will enter your bloodstream through blood vessels it encounters in the stomach. However, the majority of the alcohol will pass into the small intestine and enter the bloodstream there.
Once the alcohol has been concentrated into your blood, it is rapidly transported throughout your entire system, which is the reason that alcohol has an effect on so many different parts of your body. Most of this alcohol will eventually end up in your liver, which is where the vast majority of metabolism takes place. This is why the liver is often the part of the body that suffers most from the effects of long-term alcohol abuse.
Alcohol is processed in the liver by enzymes that break the alcohol down into acetaldehyde, which is broken down again into substances that the body can more easily absorb. For heavy drinkers, the process of breaking down the alcohol can actually drain their body of energy because their system is so saturated.
Later, we will get into the many factors that will influence the speed at which the alcohol is processed, but it’s important to note here that although the process in the body will function the same way, no two people will metabolize alcohol at the same pace. However, for each individual person, their alcohol processing will typically be incredibly consistent. The general rule of thumb is one standard drink per hour.
The human body is very effective at processing alcohol. Between 90% and 98% of all alcohol that enters the body is metabolized and absorbed. The remaining alcohol is excreted through sweat, urine, vomit, and feces.
How Fast Will The Liver Metabolize Alcohol?
Despite long-held opinions to the contrary, recent studies have shown that the liver metabolizes alcohol at mostly the same rate for everyone, regardless of individual factors such as weight, sex, or race. The rate will be much slower for those who have a pre-existing liver disease or a condition, but for the most part, they are about the same.
As we mentioned, typically the liver takes an hour to metabolize one drink or one ounce of alcohol. For the average person, a single ounce of alcohol will produce a .015 BAC. It should take roughly 10 hours for this small amount of alcohol to completely leave their bloodstream. If more drinks are consumed, the process will take longer.
Along with the effect consuming more alcohol has on your BAC reading, it will also disrupt the way you feel. If a person keeps drinking beyond a certain point, the feelings of calm, happiness and relaxation that alcohol produces can start to turn into depression, disorientation, and irritability. During this point of intoxication, the person may experience damage to their brain and body.
What Is Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)?
Whenever you hear a report on the news about someone getting a DUI, you will usually be told what their BAC level was at the time of the incident. BAC stands for blood alcohol concentration. This is the measurement of how much alcohol is in the body, or more specifically, the percentage of alcohol in the person’s blood.
If you are given a 0.3 BAC rating, this means that your blood is 0.3% alcohol, and so on. Here in the United States, and in most other countries as well, any reading at or above 0.08% BAC is considered legally intoxicated. Most often, a BAC will be used to measure how much alcohol is in a person’s system. This can be tested through a person’s breath, urine, blood, or even hair.
What Factors Influence Alcohol Processing?
There are several factors that will influence how long alcohol stays in your system. Here we will break down several.
This is where things get tricky. As we just mentioned, body weight actually has little to no effect on the speed at which your body will process alcohol. However, your weight can greatly influence your BAC and intoxication level, thus the colloquial term “lightweight.”
It has long been believed that men simply process alcohol faster than women, but there is now some disagreement, as other studies show that men will often have a lower BAC than women after differences in weight and body fat are factored in. This means gender may play no role in how quickly alcohol is processed, but it is more the individual person’s body makeup.
Younger individuals typically can process alcohol faster and more effectively than those who are older. This is why hangovers seem worse the older you get.
Contrary to popular belief, individuals with more body fat actually will generally have a higher BAC than those with less. This is because low-water fatty tissue does not absorb alcohol as well as high-water muscle tissue.
This one seems obvious, but those who are healthier will process alcohol faster than those who are not. This is especially true when it comes to the liver. Anyone with a liver disease or damaged liver will have a very difficult time processing alcohol.
Genetics do appear to have some impact on the speed at which a person processes alcohol, but the extent of these differences is as of yet unknown.
Time Since Last Meal
There is truth to the belief that drinking on an empty stomach will cause you to get more drunk. However, the more food a person has in their stomach, the longer it will take their body to absorb and process the alcohol. This will cause the person to have a lower BAC, but will keep the alcohol in their system longer.
What The Alcohol Was Mixed With
What you consumed along with the alcohol can have an effect on how it is absorbed and processed as well. Energy and sports drinks, in particular, will slow the process.
Medications Or Other Drugs
There are certain medications and drugs that can impact how your body will process alcohol, which is why most, if not all, have warnings on the labels to not be consumed with alcohol. Moreover, you should never consume alcohol with any illegal substances.
What Is Considered A Standard Drink?
Grading how long alcohol stays in your system will be dependent upon how many drinks you have consumed, so the question then becomes what is a standard drink? Some confusion in the process can arise as different types of drinks will often have different levels of alcohol content, so let us help break this down.
The standard drink is defined as the amount of alcohol in one normal-strength, 12-ounce beer, which equates to 5 percent alcohol, or 10 proof. However, the scale will vary if another type of drink is consumed. A standard, 1.5 ounce shot of 80 proof liquor also counts as one standard drink, as does a 5-ounce pour of 12 percent wine.
However, beer will often have a higher alcohol content or come in a 16-ounce pint glass. A mixed drink will depend based on the size of glass and amount and type of liquor added. A 40-ounce of malt liquor that has 8 percent alcohol will count as 4.5 standard drinks. There are charts available to keep track of your consumption when you go out, however, the math can get rather tricky.
How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your System?
When it comes to how long alcohol stays in your system, the process is actually rather straightforward. We already outlined how your body digests and processes alcohol, so it really comes down to how much you’ve had to drink more than the other outlying factors.
The liver can typically metabolize 1 ounce of alcohol each hour. One ounce of alcohol puts the average person’s BAC at 0.015%. If you have a BAC of 0.08 or the legal limit for driving, it would take 5.5 hours for it to completely leave your system.
This standard rate can be disrupted if you are consuming alcohol faster than your liver can metabolize, but for the most part, the one hour per drink rate is fairly reliable. The clock starts when you finish the drink and if you have another, you add an hour onto that time. So if you finished your beer at 5 p.m., your system will be clear by 6 p.m. However, if you have another at 5:30, you add another hour to the time.
However, this is more the process of how to sober up and be safe to drive, rather than how long the alcohol stays in your system. This makes a breathalyzer test ineffective in measuring how long alcohol stays in your system. A breathalyzer is typically used to test your current rate of intoxication, but they do not measure alcohol use over a period of time.
Alcohol can be detected on a person’s breath up to 24 hours after their last drink but will be detectable for much longer through other tests. Alcohol may be detectable in the urine for up to 48 hours after it was consumed. However, the EtG Urine Alcohol Test, commonly referred to as the 80-hour test, can detect alcohol in urine for between 3-4 days.
Blood tests are also commonly used to detect a person’s alcohol content, but produce similar results as the breathalyzer. Like a breathalyzer test, a blood test will be ineffective beyond a few hours after the person stops drinking.
For the most accurate long-term testing, trace amounts of alcohol can linger for a long time in a person’s hair. A hair follicle test will produce more accurate results than the others, and can also detect past usage. A cousin of the urine test, the EtG Hair Alcohol Test can detect your use of alcohol for up to 90 days. This means that the results can show your average alcohol consumption over the previous 3 months.
As we’ve mentioned, there will be a number of factors that will influence how long alcohol will stay in a person’s system, including their height and weight, how much alcohol has been consumed and for how long, and their individual metabolism. But overall, this should give you a better idea of how long alcohol will be detectable in your system.
If you or someone you know is abusing alcohol and interested in getting help from an alcohol addiction treatment center, the professionals at Haven House provide expert recovery services to help people safely get over their addictions.