Substance Use

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

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alcohol blood test lab

It is well established that the over-consumption of alcohol can lead to a broad spectrum of negative health effects. Regardless, the prevalence of drinking and heavy alcohol use remains high. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 86% of people aged 18 and older reported drinking alcohol in their lifetime. This high consumption rate has resulted in almost 15 million people ages 12 and older (5.3% of this group) developing alcohol use disorder. 

Sadly, alcohol contributes to around 18.5% of emergency department visits and over 22% of overdose deaths related to prescription opioids. There are several reasons for this, including that alcohol is a depressant. It is also often mixed with a wide spectrum of other drugs — both illicit and prescription drugs. 

Although the effects of alcohol can be severe, this substance has a rather short life span in the body. In terms of testing, it cannot be detected for as long as other substances. Most people are tested when intoxicated, either because they are drinking and driving or drinking when they’re not supposed to be, such as at a treatment facility. 

If you’re wondering, “How long does alcohol stay in your body?” There are several variables to consider. 

Alcohol is metabolized at a constant rate. But some people feel the effects of alcohol longer than others. That is because a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will vary depending on weight, age, what was eaten that day, what type of alcohol was consumed, what medications were taken, and whether the alcohol was drunk in a short period — which is known as binge drinking. In this case, when the consumption rate exceeds the rate of detoxification, your BAC will continue to rise. 

How long alcohol stays in your system will largely depend on the duration. If you continue to drink, your body will continue to metabolize the substance — but only at a constant rate. If you’re drinking more than your body can handle, your level of intoxication will continue to rise, taking longer for alcohol to completely leave your body. 

If you’re concerned about how long alcohol stays in your system regarding detection methods, the most accurate answer is — it depends. The greatest factor is what body system is tested. For example, alcohol will be detectable in urine or breath longer than in blood. The test used to determine the amount of alcohol in your system will also vary depending on the circumstance and available resources. 

How Long Does It Take for the Effects of Alcohol to Wear Off?

Since blood circulates through the body in 90 seconds, the effects of alcohol are fairly rapid. This means that once alcohol is absorbed into your blood, it will take an average of just 90 seconds for this substance to reach the brain, where it will start to affect your mood, often making users feel happy and calm. The full effects of alcohol generally take anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes for a healthy person to experience, with levels peaking in the blood between 30 and 90 minutes. 

Since alcohol enters all body tissues except for fat and bone, body composition matters — for example, alcohol will penetrate approximately 68% of body tissues in an adult male. If the percentage of adipose tissue, or body fat, is high, alcohol will only be distributed to the remaining lean tissue. This will result in a higher concentration in those areas. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, factors that affect how quickly the effects of alcohol take to wear off include:

  • Drinking on an empty stomach 
  • How much is consumed 
  • What you drink 
  • How quickly the alcohol is consumed 
  • Your sex and overall size 

You are legally drunk when your BAC is 0.08% or higher. The only way to determine this is by taking a test — most commonly, a breath test. 

For those breastfeeding, any questions you have about alcohol consumption should be discussed with your doctor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having just one drink and taking the necessary precautions should not be harmful. Alcohol is concentrated in breast milk within 30 to 60 minutes after having a standard drink and typically clears out in 2 to 3 hours. 

Another major concern is alcohol poisoning, which can happen to anyone who drinks more than their body can handle. Vomiting, seizures, severe confusion, slow heart rate, having trouble staying awake, and feeling cold are all warning signs that someone may need immediate assistance. 

Those who have been drinking alcohol for prolonged periods also need to be careful when going through alcohol withdrawal. In many cases, mild symptoms will begin within hours of the last drink and could develop more severe symptoms, including potentially deadly seizures. 

You do not need to fear the alcohol withdrawal process. 

Once you complete this phase of treatment, you can then address any underlying triggers to reduce your risk of relapse. At a Zinnia Healing treatment facility, you will gain access to individualized care. Learn more about our substance abuse services.  

How Is Alcohol Detected on Drug Tests?

Drug tests are one of the most definitive ways to answer the question, “How long does alcohol stay in your body?”

There are many methods to determine if you have been drinking and how much in many cases. 

There are several reasons why a blood alcohol test would be administered. This test would aim to find out if you:

  • Have been drinking and driving. In the United States, if you are 21 years or older, 0.08% BAC is the legal alcohol limit. For those younger than 21 years of age, there is zero-tolerance for alcohol. 
  • Are legally drunk, as certain states detain individuals who are drunk in public. 
  • Have been drinking while participating in a treatment program. If drinking is prohibited, and that is in your terms, you could potentially be kicked out of treatment. Not just because you are breaking the rules and sabotaging your sobriety, but you put others at risk of relapsing. 
  • Are experiencing alcohol poisoning, as this is a potentially life-threatening condition. 

One of the most common ways to detect alcohol is by administering a breathalyzer test, like the ones used by police officers when drivers are suspected of drinking while operating a vehicle. This method of testing detects alcohol within a shorter time frame than other methods, such as urine or hair. On average, a breath test can detect alcohol within a window of approximately 24 hours or less. 

Although a breath test provides fast results and is the test most often used, particularly by police officers, it is not as accurate as testing for alcohol in the blood. In this situation, a health care professional will take a small sample of blood. The process generally takes less than five minutes. A blood test is most accurate when looking at direct biomarkers, yielding up to a 99% accuracy rate. Unlike indirect biomarkers, which are affected by alcohol consumption and other potential causes, direct biomarkers only arise from alcohol consumption. This test is most accurate within a 6- to 12-hour window after your last drink. 

Several urine tests are available, some of which are more advanced than others. On average, a urine test will detect alcohol between 12 and 24 hours after drinking. But there are urine tests available that may detect alcohol 80 hours after drinking. Compared to other substances, some of which can be detected for up to 30 days when used chronically, the typical urine detection period for alcohol is short. 

Hair provides the greatest time frame, with the ability to detect alcohol up to 90 days after drinking. 

Other options include saliva and sweat, but these tests are not commonly used.  

How Is Alcohol Metabolized in the Body?

To answer the question, “How long does alcohol stay in your body?” It’s important to dive deeper into how alcohol is metabolized in the body. 

Alcohol is a toxin that must be neutralized or eliminated. 

When you consume alcohol, it goes into your digestive system but is not digested like other food and drinks. Approximately 20% is absorbed into your bloodstream through your stomach. But the majority travels to your small intestine. This is why drinking on a full or empty stomach can affect how quickly you feel the effects. Once alcohol reaches the small intestine, it is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly.  

It is your liver that completes the removal process. This organ actively works to oxidize 95% of the alcohol you consume, which means that alcohol is converted into water and carbon dioxide. 

If you have any issues with your liver, this process may slow down. For example, a healthy liver that effectively produces the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase will successfully break down alcohol into ketones at approximately 0.015g/100mL/hour. In this case, your BAC reduces by 0.015 per hour. 

Although the effectiveness of metabolism can be limited by factors such as liver damage and medications, nothing will speed up detoxification rates, including sleep or drinking water. 

Approximately 10% of consumed alcohol is eliminated through urine, breath, and sweat. Since alcohol evaporates in the air, when alcohol in the blood comes into contact with air in the lungs, it can be transferred out of the body via breath. 

Alcohol metabolism is controlled by several variables, including genetic factors and environmental factors. For example, variations in enzymes can affect how effectively alcohol is broken down.

Speaking of enzymes, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) are the two main enzymes that help break down the alcohol molecule. Alcohol is metabolized into acetaldehyde by ADH, a highly toxic substance. It is then metabolized into acetate, a less active byproduct, which is then broken down into carbon dioxide and water so that it can be eliminated. 

Regardless if someone consumes two beers or a whole bottle of whiskey, the body can only metabolize a certain amount of alcohol each hour. That amount varies from person to person, based on body mass, liver size, variations of the ADH and ALDH enzymes, etc. 

How much you have eaten that day can also contribute to absorption. Food can absorb alcohol, which inhibits contact with the stomach lining, slowing transit from the stomach to the small intestine. Once it reaches the small intestine, it is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, traveling to the brain. 

On average, the body will process one standard drink per hour, which is:

  • 12 ounces of beer — but remain mindful of the percentage (an 8% beer will take longer to metabolize than a 4.5% beer)
  • 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, such as rum or vodka

Recommended reading: How alcohol-related deaths have changed in every state over the past two decades

Alcohol Detox Requires Specialized Support

Whether you or your loved one are struggling with alcohol, you must take serious precautions during the detoxification process. 

For those dependent, withdrawing from alcohol can be dangerous, even deadly. 

At Zinnia Healing treatment facilities, alcohol withdrawal is treated as a medical condition. This process is uncomfortable, so many continue drinking, even if their lives have reached rock bottom. And for some, this process is life-threatening. That is not a gamble you want to take. Zinnia Healing will guide you during this process, offering ongoing treatment to help you every step of the way. 

Unlike many other addictions we treat, alcohol is considered socially acceptable. Alcohol consumption is common, so it can be challenging to determine when your drinking habits have become a problem. If you need alcohol to feel normal or to avoid withdrawal symptoms, Zinnia Healing can help you overcome both your physical dependence and addiction. 

Following the detoxification process, completed most safely and comfortably possible, a Zinnia Healing treatment center will help you address any underlying conditions or mental health concerns that may contribute to your alcohol addiction. From cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), the treatment programs at Zinnia Healing are evidence-based and medically supported, ensuring the highest rates of success. 

Ready to start the recovery process? Zinnia Healing will develop an individualized treatment plan for you or your loved one. Reach out to our team at (855) 430-9439 to discuss your unique needs today!