How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

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Alcohol is the most widely consumed chemical substance in the country. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report close to 86 percent of people over the age of 18 have consumed alcohol at least once in their lives (1), and close to 70 percent of people reported drinking at least once in the past month. Of these people, close to 26 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the past month, and 14.5 million people over the age of 12 suffered from a diagnosable alcohol use disorder. If you or someone you love has been drinking heavily and has had a difficult time quitting or cutting back, some degree of professional help might be necessary. At Guardian Recovery we have developed a highly individualized program of alcohol addiction treatment, one that takes the unique needs of each client into account. Whether you have been drinking heavily for years or you have just started growing concerned about your drinking habits, we are available to help. Contact us today to learn more about your options for alcohol addiction recovery.

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Wondering How Long Alcohol Stays In Your System?

If you have been hitting the bottle a little harder than normal, you might be wondering exactly how long the alcohol will stay in your system. The answer to this question depends heavily on several factors, including how much you drink, how frequently you drink, and what kind of test you are taking. Alcohol can be detected for a longer period of time in urine than on the breath, for example. We tend to give the liver quite a lot of credit when it comes to breaking down alcohol. In reality, there are multiple major organs that play vital roles in the processing and elimination of the substance. When you consume an alcoholic beverage, it hits your stomach first. Most people have enzymes in their stomachs that begin to break down the alcohol before it reaches the bloodstream. Some people lack these enzymes, and are prone to getting extremely ill when they consume alcohol in any amount. These enzymes are called aldehyde dehydrogenase and alcohol dehydrogenase (ALDH and ADH), and higher levels are found among men and people who drink infrequently. If your stomach contains minimal levels of ALDH and ADH, the alcohol will move along to your small intestine, and then to your bloodstream and your brain. This is when you will begin feeling the intoxicating effects of alcohol.

Once the alcohol moves through the stomach and small intestine and enters the bloodstream, it makes its way to the liver, which typically removes around 90 percent of the alcohol from your system. Some alcohol passes through the kidneys, and the remainder passes through the lungs and skin. If you are a heavy drinker and you consume alcohol on a daily or near-daily basis, it will be processed through your system more slowly. It makes sense that the more alcohol you drink the more work your body will have to do. If you are wondering how long alcohol stays in your system, take an honest look at how much and how frequently you drink. This is one piece of the puzzle.

How Much is One Drink?

One standard drink contains around 14 grams of alcohol (also known as ethanol). As a general rule of thumb, one drink equates to one pint of beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of liquor. Of course, the alcohol percentage or proof impacts what passes as a single drink. If you drink one pint of beer with 13% ethanol, you are drinking more than one drink.

  • One pint of beer (12 ounces) with around 5% alcohol counts as a single drink.
  • One glass of wine (5 ounces) with between 11 and 13% alcohol counts as a single drink.
  • One shot of liquor or spirits (1.5 ounces) with around 40% alcohol counts as a single drink

While you might feel the effects of alcohol within several minutes, it takes between 60 and 90 minutes for alcohol to completely make its way to the bloodstream. Once it reaches peak levels in the bloodstream, your liver and other organs will begin the process of breaking it down.

When Is It Safe to Drive After Drinking Alcohol?

You might be in the habit of chugging a glass of water after you drink so you can “sober up” more quickly and safely drive home. In reality, it isn’t entirely safe to drive until around one full hour after you’ve had one drink. Maybe you have heard of the “1-Hour per Drink” rule. For every alcoholic beverage you consume, wait one full hour before getting behind the wheel of a car. This means if you have two beers and a shot of whiskey, you should be waiting a full three hours before driving.

This might seem excessive, but the half-life of alcohol is around five hours. This means your body will generally process around half of the alcohol you have consumed (so long as your consumption is moderate) in a five hour timeframe. Because alcohol is rather difficult to break down, it takes roughly five half-lives to be completely eliminated from the system — which equates to 25 hours (or one full day). This is why you might still feel drunk the next morning after a night of very heavy drinking.

Unfortunately, many heavy drinkers make the decision to drive before they are cognitively capable of doing so. The United States Department of Transportation reports that an average of 32 people in the U.S. die from a drunk-driving accident every day — that equates to roughly one person every 45 minutes. In 2020 there were a reported 11,654 deaths from drunk-driving car crashes. In order to properly operate a vehicle or any other piece of heavy machinery, it is crucial for your cognitive functioning and muscle coordination to be intact. The more you drink, the more the functioning of the central nervous system is subdued. It is important to note that you do not need to be above the legal limit in order to be impaired. In 2020 there were 2,041 drunk driving fatalities among people who had a BAC of 0.07 g/dL or lower.

How Long Does It Take to Sober Up?

The length of time it takes to sober up completely depends on several factors, including:

  • Your age, gender, and body weight.
  • The amount of alcohol you consumed.
  • How quickly you consumed the alcohol.
  • What type of alcohol you consumed.
  • Whether or not you drank on an empty stomach.
  • Whether or not you simultaneously drank water or another non-alcoholic beverage.
  • Your overall physical health.

The most important factor is how much you drink. If you slowly drink one glass of wine over the course of an hour-long dinner, you might not feel its effects at all — or only very slightly. If you take five shots over the course of an hour, you will likely be in pretty rough shape, and you might feel heavily intoxicated well into the next morning.

Your tolerance level also affects how long it takes you to sober up. Some people view their tolerance for alcohol as a bragging right. However, the development of a physical tolerance is actually one of the symptoms associated with a diagnosable alcohol use disorder. If you can drink a lot without feeling intoxicated, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can “hold your liquor” better than the other people at the bar. It means your body has adjusted to the presence of large quantities of alcohol, and you might experience withdrawal symptoms if you attempt to cut out alcohol entirely.

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Can You “Sober Up” Faster With Food or Coffee?

Say you go out drinking with some friends after work. You’re three drinks in when you realize you have dinner plans with your parents. You know they’ll get on your case if you show up to Olive Garden with a buzz on, so you decide to order a hot cup of coffee in lieu of your next gin and tonic. But does coffee really help to sober you up faster?

In essence, no — the caffeine in a cup of coffee might make you more alert, but both coffee and alcohol dehydrate you. If you’re dehydrated you’ll get drunk more quickly and stay drunk for longer. Below are several steps you can take to “sober up” faster:

  1. Hydrate! Drink plenty of water, or other hydrating, non-alcoholic beverages. Not only will hydrating yourself help you flush out your system more quickly, but if you choose a beverage with electrolytes and other vitamins and minerals, you will begin to replenish what you’ve lost as your body processes the alcohol.
  2. Get some sleep. The quality of sleep you get after a night of drinking is less-than-ideal, but there are few better ways to sober up. As you sleep your body processes the alcohol, and if you have had a reasonable amount to drink, you should wake up feeling refreshed and as good as new. If you frequently wake up with a hangover and neglect personal obligations because of your recovery time, you might be venturing into “problem drinking” territory.
  3. Eat a burger. There is some truth to the notion that greasy food “absorbs” alcohol and helps you sober up faster. This is especially true if you eat a meal heavy in carbohydrates, fat and protein along with your drink of choice. Doing so will reduce the amount of alcohol that makes it to your bloodstream, and the intoxicating effects of alcohol will be minimized (unless you drink excessively, of course). Drinking on an empty stomach is a surefire way to suffer a hangover the next morning.
  4. Go on a walk. There is also truth to the notion of “sweating it out.” Breaking a sweat helps the body process alcohol more quickly and could also help you stay alert. Just be sure you are hydrated before you go on a walk or a jog.

How Food Changes Alcohol Processing?

Having food in the stomach slightly alters the way alcohol is processed. According to an article published by the National Library of Medicine titled Alcohol Metabolism, “The presence of food in the stomach retards gastric emptying and thus will reduce the absorption of alcohol, the “don’t drink on an empty stomach” concept. Meals high in either fat, or carbohydrate or protein are equally effective in retarding gastric emptying. The major factor governing the absorption rate of alcohol is whether the drink is taken on an empty stomach or together with or after a meal.”

If you drink alcohol on a completely empty stomach, it will be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly; usually in between 15 minutes and 3 hours, depending on your body weight and several other factors. If you drink alcohol on a full stomach, absorption rates will slow down significantly. It might take up to 6 full hours for alcohol to be fully absorbed into the bloodstream. In other words, if you drink on a full stomach or enjoy a hearty meal while drinking alcohol, you can speed up the elimination of this alcohol from your system by up to 2 hours. Your alcohol metabolism rate increases by up to 50% when you drink on a full stomach.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and Liver Metabolism Rate

Alcohol is a toxin. Like other toxins, it passes through your liver, which works to break it down and eliminate it from your body. Liver cells naturally produce an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. This enzyme breaks alcohol into ketones at a rate of about 0.015 g/100mL/hour. As your liver works to break down alcohol, your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) is reduced by 0.015 per hour.

When you drink heavily on a regular basis, your liver works overtime. Additionally, some of your healthy liver cells die off every time it processes alcohol. These cells regenerate on their own over time, but if your liver never has time to heal it can sustain some serious damage over time. Eventually, this damage progresses to liver disease or cirrhosis of the liver. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, there are three main types of liver disease caused by excessive alcohol consumption:

  1. Fatty liver. Fatty liver is caused by the build-up of fat inside liver cells. Fatty liver is the most common alcohol-related liver problem.
  2. Alcoholic hepatitis. This condition results in acute inflammation of the liver and permanent liver scarring. More liver cells die off than can be regenerated.
  3. Alcoholic cirrhosis. When a person develops alcoholic cirrhosis it means that the normal liver tissue is being destroyed by repeated heavy alcohol use. Functioning liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue, leading to a host of related problems.

Factors That Affect Alcohol Metabolism

In addition to your body weight, how much food you have eaten, and how much alcohol you consume on a regular basis, these are the factors that affect alcohol metabolism:

  • Your sex. Women tend to metabolize alcohol more quickly than men, seeing as their lean body mass tends to be lower.
  • Your age. The younger you are, the fewer ADH enzymes you have in your stomach, meaning alcohol is eliminated from the system at a slower rate.
  • Biological rhythms. Interestingly enough, the rate at which alcohol is metabolized might be affected by the time of day.
  • Drug use (prescribed or otherwise). Alcohol elimination will be hindered by the presence of a prescribed medication like Antabuse. Additionally, other chemical substances are likely to compete for ADH, reducing elimination rates.
  • The presence of an alcohol use disorder. Drinking heavily increases your metabolic rate. If you believe you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, reaching out for help is an important first step.

What Happens During Ethanol Urine & EtG Alcohol Tests?

When you take an ethanol urine test or an EtG (ethyl glucuronide) alcohol test, the presence of alcohol in your urine is effectively detected. You might be subjected to ethanol urine or EtG alcohol test for a number of reasons — accountability during alcohol addiction recovery, court cases, probation programs, or as a member of the military. Urine tests are the most common, but blood, hair, and nails can also be tested for the presence of alcohol. An article published by the Medical University of South Carolina states, “EtG, or ethyl glucuronide, is a byproduct of ethanol (alcohol that one drinks) and glucuronide a common biological compound made in the liver that binds various toxins and drugs in the body that allows them to be excreted in the urine. When someone drinks, even relatively small amounts of alcohol, EtG is formed and can be detected in the urine.”  EtG is typically present in the urine for between 48 and 72 hours.

Are You an Alcoholic?

How do you know if your drinking has become a problem and professional addiction treatment has become necessary? Pay attention to the presence of the warning signs and symptoms listed below. If you are interested in learning more about available treatment options, reach out to Guardian Recovery today.

  • You have been drinking more frequently than normal, and you often drink more alcohol than you intended.
  • You spend a significant amount of time obtaining alcohol, drinking, and recovering from the effects of alcohol.
  • Your alcohol use has started interfering with your interpersonal relationships.
  • You are experiencing problems at work or school as a direct result of your alcohol use.
  • You often crave alcohol.
  • You have started neglecting activities you used to enjoy.
  • You have been experiencing consequences directly linked to alcohol consumption.
  • You continue to drink despite worsening physical or mental health problems.
  • You have developed a physical tolerance.
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop using alcohol.

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If you or someone you love has been struggling with an alcohol use disorder of any severity, Guardian Recovery is available to help. We offer an effective and individualized treatment program that addresses the consequences of alcohol misuse and dependence on a physical, emotional and psychological level. Receiving the professional help you need is as easy as picking up the phone and reaching out for help. As soon as you do, you will be put in touch with an experienced Treatment Advisor who will walk you through our simple, straightforward admissions process. We look forward to speaking with you soon and helping you begin your own personal journey of alcohol addiction recovery.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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