how long does alcohol stay in your system

Alcohol Metabolism: How Long Can it Stay in your Body?

Alcohol is an addictive substance that has depressive effects on the body. While it can make you feel euphoric at times, alcohol can have dire effects, especially if you take huge amounts for a prolonged period. It can lead to slow reaction time, muscle incoordination, and poor cognition. At increased doses, liquor can even lead to respiratory failure and eventual death.

With that being said, it is important to know how alcohol intake affects your body. Here are some useful facts about how your body metabolizes alcohol – and how long it can remain inside your system. 

How Does Your Body Metabolize Alcohol? 

Once you drink alcohol, it goes straight to the stomach, where approximately 20% is absorbed. The rest is absorbed in the intestines. 

Alcohol is then metabolized in the liver through the action of several enzymes. It is important to note that the organ can only process one standard drink per hour – with the volume depending on the liquor you have taken. Here are the reference values for one serving, according to the University of California – Santa Cruz:

Type of Alcohol One standard drink equates to… 
Beer 12-ounce drink of normal strength (4%) This serving size might vary depending on the beer, as malt liquor and micro-brews usually have higher alcohol concentrations
Liquor 1.5 ounces (40% alcohol or 80 proof)  Mixed drinks usually contain more of this amount A lesser amount may be warranted for stronger drinks such as Everclear, 151 proof rum, or grain alcohol 
Wine 5 ounces for either red, white, champagne, or rose 3 ounces for sherry, cognac, or brandy 

The highest alcohol concentration occurs 45 to 90 minutes after intake, according to the NIH Curriculum Supplement Series

Once alcohol reaches the liver, the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADL) acts upon it, converting it to acetaldehyde. This is then transformed into carbon dioxide and water by other enzymes – and such are then removed from the body. 

Should you decide to drink more than the aforementioned amounts, alcohol will remain in your bloodstream and tissues until it can be fully metabolized by the liver. Because of this, you can register high blood alcohol content for several hours. 

Factors Affecting Alcohol Absorption 

Although the liver can eliminate an ounce of alcohol per hour, it can be slower or faster, depending on the following factors:

  • Body weight. A larger person absorbs alcohol slower than usual because of the bigger surface area where alcohol can be distributed. 
  • Body composition. Alcohol is more soluble in water than in fat. As such, a person with more body fat can absorb alcohol faster than an individual with more lean muscle. 
  • Gender. Women generally have higher blood alcohol levels because of their smaller frames and higher proportions of body fat. Additionally, ADL enzyme activity in females is slower, thereby allowing increased alcohol absorption in the stomach. 
  • Food intake. If you drink alcohol without eating anything beforehand, you will end up absorbing alcohol faster than usual. According to the National Institutes of Health, a diet high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein will decrease the alcohol absorption rate by as much as 3.3 times. Do note that the presence of food will NOT prevent alcohol absorption, it will only delay it. 

What is Blood Alcohol Content?

How your body metabolizes alcohol is reflected in your blood alcohol content, which is also known as BAC. This pertains to the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream. To wit, if you have a BAC of 0.10, that means there is one part alcohol for every 1000 parts of blood. 

Your BAC will depend on your gender and weight, and the time that has passed since your first drink. Other factors that may affect your BAC include one’s metabolic rate, drug/medication intake, mood changes, and body structure. 

According to the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, 1 to 5 drinks (BAC 0.4 to 0.8) are enough to significantly affect driving skills with the possibility of criminal penalties. 6 to 9 drinks (BAC 0.14 to 0.23) can render a person legally intoxicated with possibility of criminal penalties. 8 to 10 servings (BAC 0.27 to 0.30), on the other hand, can be lethal in men weighing 100 to 140 pounds. As for women, the possibility of death can take place in as little as 6 drinks (BAC 0.30 and above). 

If you are a heavy drinker, your BAC levels will manifest accordingly even if you think that alcohol is not affecting you mentally or physically. 

How Long Can Alcohol Stay in Your Body?

As has been mentioned, the liver can only do so much when it comes to eliminating alcohol from the body. If you decide to drink more than usual, you can expect alcohol to remain in your bloodstream for several hours. Here is how long alcohol lingers in the body, after the first drink: 

Saliva As early as 2 hours, up to 8 hours 
Urine From 12 to 80 hours
Breath From 12 to 24 hours
Hair Up to 3 months

Source: Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment

How to Flush Alcohol Out of the Body

If you drink large amounts of alcohol, the liver might find it hard to get rid of it completely from your system. As such, here are some tips from the U.S. National Library of Medicine that can help you remove the high amounts of alcohol from your body:

  • Drink water in between. As it has been said, alcohol is more soluble in water. 
  • Consume fruit juice or honey.
  • Replace your electrolytes with sports drinks or bouillon soup, liquids that are high in sodium and potassium. 
  • Rest well. High levels of alcohol will impair you, so it’s better if you recuperate until you feel better. 
  • Avoid taking Acetaminophen for headaches, as it can affect the liver and get in the way of proper alcohol metabolism. 
  • Finally, avoid drinking again! This is the best way to flush out alcohol from the body – for good. 

Alcohol might make you feel relaxed or euphoric at first, but it can lead to mental cloudiness and incoordination in just a few minutes. This is especially the case if you drink more than your liver can handle. So if you want to avoid failing the breathalyzer test – or alcohol’s lethal effects – then you need to make better life choices, mainly when it comes to drinking. 

Latest posts by Raychel Ria Agramon, BSN, RN, MPM (see all)

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