Alcohol is one of the most commonly used drugs in the world, and yet many people are unaware of how the body processes this complex substance. Although all bodies process alcohol through the liver, several factors can influence how long alcohol stays in your system.
When an individual drinks alcohol, the substance enters the digestive system and quickly gets absorbed into the bloodstream. From there, alcohol gets processed by the liver, and the average liver can process about one alcoholic drink per hour.
Timeline For Alcohol To Leave System
Many people who consume alcohol may be curious as to how long alcohol stays in their system. These individuals may wonder how to drink without becoming intoxicated, or may wish to accurately gauge when it becomes safe to drive after consuming alcohol.
Alcohol can linger in the system for various lengths of time, depending on variables such as age, weight, gender, health, or medication. Because the liver can process about one drink per hour, the amount of time it takes for your body to clear itself of alcohol can vary.
This is an approximate timeline of how long alcohol affects the body:
- 10 minutes after first drink: breathing, heart rate, and brain function slow down
- 40 to 60 minutes after first drink: peak physical effects of alcohol occur
- 12 hours after last drink: alcohol traceable in blood
- 12 to 36 hours after last drink: alcohol present in urine
- 24 hours after last drink: alcohol detectable on breath
Alcohol remains in the bloodstream until the liver is able to break it down. This results in a blood alcohol concentration level. If alcohol is consumed faster than the liver can process it, blood concentration rises.
For example, if someone consumes three 12-ounce beers over a five-hour period, their liver is given sufficient time to process the alcohol. They may feel slight relaxation effects, but are not likely to experience intoxication. Conversely, if someone drinks three beers over the course of one hour, their blood alcohol level may spike and they could experience intoxication.
Blood alcohol level tests are used to determine the amount of alcohol in someone’s blood, and whether that person is considered intoxicated. The legal limit may differ by state, but is usually 0.08.
What Is a Standard Drink?
There is much confusion about what constitutes a standard alcoholic drink. Some individuals may be surprised to learn that the amount of liquid does not necessarily translate to the amount of alcohol in each drink.
Different types of alcoholic beverages contain varying levels of alcohol (ethanol), which means that certain types of drinks are considered stronger than others. Because the human liver can only process about one drink per hour, it’s vital to understand what happens if alcohol is consumed too quickly, or is drank in larger doses than an individual may realize.
One alcoholic drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor, such as rum, gin, whiskey, or vodka
If an individual consumes more than one standard drink per hour, they may begin to experience intoxication, which puts them at risk for both short- and long-term health risks.
Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) And Liver Metabolism Rate
Blood alcohol concentration, sometimes called blood alcohol level or blood alcohol content, refers to the level of alcohol in the bloodstream. The BAC can be used to determine if someone involved in an accident or crime is within the legal BAC limit. If someone is consuming alcohol faster than their liver can process it, their blood alcohol level rises and they are considered intoxicated.
Blood alcohol concentrations and their common symptoms include:
- 05: reduced inhibitions, being “buzzed”
- 10: slurred words
- 20: euphoria and motor impairment
- 30: confusion
- 40: stupor
- 50: coma
- 60: halted breathing, death
Some people may have symptoms of drunkenness below the legal level of what’s considered intoxicated, while others who drink heavily may develop a tolerance and not feel any symptoms until a higher blood alcohol concentration occurs.
Additional Factors That Influence Drug Testing For Alcohol
Many things can affect the BAC that someone has on an alcohol screening test.
Some of the factors to consider in a blood alcohol concentration test include:
- body concentration/body mass index (BMI)
- food consumed before drinking or while drinking
- medications or other drugs ingested
Alcohol Detection Times
Alcohol is traceable in the body for various lengths of time, depending on the type of test being given.
Alcohol can be detected by several different types of screenings, including:
- breath: alcohol can stay on the breath for up to 24 hours since the last drink
- urine: alcohol is traceable in urine for up to 36 hours, depending on the level of testing
- saliva: alcohol can be found via saliva swab up to five days after last drink
- blood: alcohol is traceable in the blood up to 12 hours after last consumption
- hair: alcohol can be detected on a human hair for up to 90 days
How Alcohol Affects The Body
Alcohol can have short-term and long-term effects on someone’s health. In moderation, alcohol is not considered deadly, but many people misunderstand moderation and severely underestimate their alcohol intake.
Some of the short-term health effects of alcohol include:
- alcohol poisoning (caused by high blood alcohol concentration)
- injuries and accidents (including motor vehicle, falls, burns, and drownings)
- risky sexual behaviors (including unprotected sex and transmission of HIV)
- violence (including assault, homicide, sexual assault, and suicide)
Long-term health effects associated with excessive alcohol use include:
- high blood pressure
- heart problems
- liver issues
- digestive problems
- increased chance of breast, mouth, throat, liver, esophagus, and colon cancers
- social consequences, such as unemployment or relationship issues
Treatment For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction
Seeking treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction can be a life-saving way to combat alcoholism. If you or someone you know have concerning behaviors related to alcohol, there is help available. More than twenty million people in the U.S. struggle with addiction and substance abuse, and there are ample treatment options available for those who are suffering.
Treatment for alcohol abuse may include detox services, inpatient or residential care, partial hospitalization treatment, and intensive outpatient programs. There are affordable, effective treatment options to fit every schedule, including short-term and long-term care.
Most treatment approaches will likely include therapies such as individual and group counseling, addiction education, and experiential and holistic therapies such as equine therapy, faith-based treatment, and 12-Step support groups.
To learn more about how long alcohol stays in your system, or for questions about alcohol abuse and addiction treatment, contact one of our specialists today.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Fact Sheets - Alcohol Use and Your Health
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Alcohol use and safe drinking
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Blood Alcohol Level
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — Mental and Substance Use Disorders
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — What Is A Standard Drink?