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How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

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John is a college student, and by all accounts a responsible young man. The Friday night after finals week is typically a joyous affair, full of good-spirited celebration, and John looked forward to the opportunity to blow off some steam. Like many non-academic events involving college students, alcohol is front and center of the activities. But again, John is a responsible young man and, even though he may have drank a fair amount, he opts to crash on a friend’s couch rather than drive home in an intoxicated state.

The morning rolls around and, despite a noticeable but manageable headache, John feels as though he is sober enough to drive. So he makes the trek across campus, only to notice the swirling lights of the campus police department in his rearview mirror, stopping him due to a burnt-out taillight. The officer states that he can smell alcohol wafting from John himself and uses a field breathalyzer test. After blowing above the legal limit, John is left with the even bigger headache of explaining how he received a DUI citation early in the morning to his parents who think the world of him. It’s a story that happens all too often.

There has been extensive research done on the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol. That being said, there are many individual factors that can affect how long alcohol can be detected in the body and how long it takes to be eliminated from your system.

Depending on the testing method used as well as your body mass, age, genetics, sex, and overall health, alcohol can remain in your system in one form or another anywhere from 10 hours to 90 days. Through repeated use, alcohol can build up and remain in your system even longer. The longer it is in your system, the higher the risk of developing a physical dependence becomes.

In order to better understand why alcohol can remain in your system for so long, it is important to understand the process in which the body metabolizes alcohol.

How Does Your Body Metabolize Alcohol?

The process in which your body metabolizes alcohol consists of multiple steps. No two people are the same, and different people will experience the effects of alcohol consumption in a number of different ways. Depending on any number of factors, alcohol may be processed by the body in a number of ways.

How Long Does It Take To Feel the Effects of Alcohol in Your System?

After consuming alcohol, it may take effect in a matter of minutes. When ingested, alcohol is rapidly absorbed by the lining of the stomach and the small intestine. Once alcohol enters the bloodstream, it is then circulated to all organs of your body.

In the majority of healthy humans, it takes about 90 seconds for blood to do a full circulation around the body. This allows alcohol to affect your brain and all other organs within a short window of time. The full effects of an alcoholic beverage are felt within 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the speed of absorption.

Alcohol spreads throughout all tissues of the body except for bone and fat. Because of this, the effects of alcohol on the body will vary according to the individual, their sex, body composition, amount and type of alcohol consumed, the presence of food during and before consumption, and their individual ability of their liver to produce the enzymes responsible for breaking down alcohol.

The typical human liver can process alcohol at a rate of about one ounce of alcohol per hour. Because of this, a majority of public health authorities advise against drinking more than one alcoholic beverage per hour. Your individual liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol will determine how quickly your blood alcohol content, or BAC, will rise. There are certain biological and habitual lifestyle differences that may have an impact on your body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, leading to reaching a higher BAC more quickly.

The following are only some of the factors that may influence how quickly a person reaches a high blood alcohol content and how long alcohol may stay in the system:

Low blood pressure/poor circulation: People who suffer from low blood pressure or poor blood circulation are much more likely to reach intoxication quicker and remain intoxicated longer because it takes the body longer to remove alcohol from the blood.

Body fat percentage: A high level of body fat percentage in a person can lead to alcohol remaining in their system longer.

Empty stomach: Consuming alcohol on an empty stomach is more dangerous for a number of reasons. Without a buffer, such as a meal, alcohol is able to enter the bloodstream through the stomach or small intestine at a much more rapid rate than if the person ate before drinking. The presence of food in the stomach causes the alcohol to be absorbed at a much slower rate.

Age: The bodies of older men lack some of the enzymes that break down alcohol, leading to them becoming intoxicated after a smaller amount of drinking. The same is true for women going through menopause. Hormonal changes cause them to become intoxicated easier.

Heavy drinking habits: People who drink heavily and on a regular basis have more of the enzymes that break down alcohol in their body. This tolerance to alcohol means they will have to drink a much larger amount in order to get intoxicated.

Prescriptions/medications: Many prescription medications can interfere with how the body absorbs alcohol. Allergy medicine, antibiotics, antidepressants, and diabetes medications have all been shown to affect how the body metabolizes alcohol.

Time between beverages: Because the liver is only able to metabolize one ounce of alcohol per hour, the longer you wait between drinks, the better. Binge-drinking in a short amount of time can overload the liver and lead to alcohol poisoning, overdose, or death.

Now that we know the different factors that can affect the rate at which the body metabolizes alcohol, let’s examine the dangers of excessive drinking and how long alcohol can potentially stay in the system.

The Short-Term Dangers of Excessive Alcohol Drinking

When a person consumes more than the recommended one ounce of alcohol per hour, they’re opening themselves up to a wide variety of negative consequences associated with excessive alcohol consumption. These possible negative outcomes are different for each person, but they depend on how much a person consumes as well as their overall physical condition and health.

Alcohol is what’s known as a central nervous system depressant. This means that it slows down all functions of the brain and body. Alcohol intoxication affects vision, physical coordination, judgment, ability to multitask and prioritize, reaction time, sleep cycles, and decision-making skills.

The short-term effects of excessive alcohol consumption may include

  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Passing out
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Coma and death

When a person consumes a small amount of alcohol, it can slow their brain function and have a tension-relieving effect while reducing the ability to concentrate. A medium amount of alcohol can cause slurred speech, altered emotions, blurry or poor vision, flushing or an increased blood flow to the surface of the skin, increased frequency of urination, and drowsiness.

When a person consumes a large amount of alcohol in a small amount of time, this is when the situation can become very dangerous. This leads to breathing difficulties, uncontrolled bodily functions, alcohol poisoning, coma, and possible death. Alcohol poisoning refers to the body’s natural response to an oversaturation of alcohol, leading to a complete shutdown. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), alcohol poisoning is responsible for the deaths of six people every day.

The impairment caused by alcohol is responsible for thousands of deaths in the United States each year. In 2016, the CDC reported that 10,497 people died due to alcohol-impaired vehicle crashes in the United States alone. The CDC also reported that on average, 29 people die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an impaired driver each day. That works out to one death every 50 minutes. 

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

Alcohol can remain detectable in your system even after it has been metabolized. Many people are under the misconception that having no detectable BAC means that their body is free of any alcohol. Measuring BAC strictly measures the concentration of alcohol in the blood, which is constantly being circulated and filtered throughout the body.

Because of this, alcohol is only detectable in the blood for a few hours after the last drink. There are many different methods for measuring BAC, including urine samples, breath tests, and breathalyzers. Some of these tests are more accurate than others, but they’re all able to detect BAC with a fair amount of accuracy.

There are other tests for alcohol in the system that are effective for much longer than typical breathalyzer or sweat tests. When a person consumes alcohol, roughly 20% is initially absorbed through the lining of the stomach, with the remaining 80% passing on to the small intestine and dispersing to the bloodstream.

After this, what’s left is somewhere between 2% and 8% of the alcohol consumed that remains in the body. This is alcohol that was not fully processed, leaving behind what is known as alcohol metabolites. This remaining alcohol is removed from the body through urine, sweat, and saliva.

Science has progressed in such a way that different tests have varying sensitivities to detecting these metabolites. The most sophisticated of which can detect if a person has consumed alcohol even up to 90 days after the fact.

There are different test methods that are effective at testing for BAC and alcohol metabolites for various periods of time after consumption. These methods include

Blood: Alcohol content is detectable for several hours after the last drink. Because of the constant circulation and filtration of the blood, BAC is reduced relatively quickly and alcohol isn’t detectable after a short period of time compared to other testing methods.

Breath: Breathalyzers are the most common device used by law enforcement and other agencies to detect the recent consumption of alcohol. Because there is residual alcohol left in the body that is not fully metabolized, breathalyzer tests are able to detect alcohol in a person’s system for up to 24 hours after consumption.

Saliva: Some tests require a swab of the inner cheek to detect alcohol consumption. These types of tests are effective in detecting alcohol consumption within 10 to 24 hours of the last drink.

Urine: Tests that analyze urine are available in a wide variety of sensitivities to alcohol metabolites, with the most sensitive also being the most expensive. The less sophisticated and more common variety of urine test is effective in detecting alcohol that’s been consumed within 12 to 48 hours. More advanced urine analysis tests can detect consumption within three to four days.

Hair strands: The most sophisticated and effective of the alcohol tests, testing hair strands, can detect alcohol consumption for up to three months. This type of test isn’t extremely common since it’s expensive, but it does serve certain purposes for parole violations, sensitive employment, and other situations where being completely alcohol-free is required.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder at Serenity Lane Is Compassionate and Effective

If you believe that the alcohol use of yourself or a loved one has become an issue, Serenity Lane is here to provide compassionate and effective treatment for alcoholism. We understand the disease of addiction and the best ways to help promote strong, lasting change.

We offer residential alcohol treatment programs and multiple levels of outpatient programming to provide you with the exact type of care you need. With centers all around Oregon, Serenity Lane makes your physical and mental health our number one priority.

You’re stronger than you may think, and we’re here to help. Call us today at (541) 262-0765 for a no-cost consultation from one of our mental health professionals.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do you flush alcohol out of your system?

It is a common misconception to think that there is a way to “flush” alcohol from your system. While it is important to drink water after consuming alcohol due to its dehydrating effects, the only true way to get alcohol completely out of your system is to wait it out. Your body will naturally rid itself of alcohol after a few days.

What happens to your body after three weeks of no alcohol?

After three weeks of no alcohol, you will start to notice substantial benefits. Liver function will begin to return to normal and blood pressure typically starts to reduce as well. Many people also report better looking skin as the dehydrating effects of alcohol are no longer present.

How long after drinking can you pass a breathalyzer test?

Breathalyzers are the most common device used by law enforcement and other agencies to detect the recent consumption of alcohol. Because there is residual alcohol left in the body that is not fully metabolized, breathalyzer tests are able to detect alcohol in a person’s system for up to 24 hours after consumption.

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