While modern science has given us insight into how the body processes alcohol, there is no exact formula or single answer for how long it takes to go through our system. Every person is different, and a number of additional factors come into play, such as age, sex, weight, and the amount of food a person consumes before or while drinking.
That said, we can make estimates based on factors like how long it takes for alcohol to make you feel drunk, and how long it takes the body to metabolize alcohol. Learning more about how long alcohol actually stays in your system can help you better understand your relationship with alcohol, and motivate you to make a change.
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
The simple answer is that alcohol can stay in your system for anywhere from 6-72 hours. It’s worth noting that those numbers aren’t indicative of how long you will continue to feel the effects of alcohol, but rather how long it will take your body to process it. The amount of alcohol in your system at any given time also varies by how you’re measuring it. Here’s a breakdown of what specific tests are able to detect alcohol in your system:
- Blood test: The average person’s liver can process one standard drink per hour. So if you consume three glasses of wine, you can expect alcohol to be detectable in your blood for at least three hours after you finish the last glass. However, most alcohol detection tests can measure alcohol in the blood for up to 6 hours, regardless of how much or how little a person has had to drink. Other more sensitive blood tests report they can measure alcohol for up to 12 hours after consumption.
- Urine test: This is a perfect example of how varying test methods can provide varying results. Ordinarily, a urine test can detect alcohol anywhere from 12-24 hours after a person finishes drinking, though newer, more advanced methods can detect alcohol in the body for up to 80 hours after drinking.
- Saliva test: While not a very common method of alcohol detection, saliva tests can detect alcohol in the system anywhere from 12-24 hours after drinking.
- Hair test: Alcohol remains detectable through hair testing for the most prolonged period by far. A standard hair test can detect alcohol up to three months (or 90 days) after a person consumes alcohol.
How Long Does Alcohol Make You Feel Drunk?
The average, healthy person will begin to feel the effects of one standard drink within 15 to 45 minutes. Individuals with alcohol use disorder may experience a higher tolerance, and notice needing greater amounts of alcohol to feel drunk. When you start cutting back on alcohol, your tolerance also lowers. Online alcohol treatment can help you get there.
Several other factors determine how quickly alcohol will affect you:
1. Weight: The less you weigh, the more a standard drink will influence your alcohol blood content (otherwise known as ‘BAC’).
2. Sex: Men typically have more water in their body, so their systems are able to dilute alcohol more efficiently. Most men also have more alcohol dehydrogenase in their body, which is an enzyme that allows them to process alcohol quicker than the average woman. Therefore, the effects of drinking can be shorter-lived.
3. Age: As you grow older, you lose lean muscle mass, resulting in a higher concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream. And after age 65, your circulation begins to slow, resulting in less blood passing through the liver. This results in more pronounced effects from alcohol, even if the amount of alcohol remains unchanged.
4. Food: Having food in your stomach can help slow the effects of alcohol. Food very effectively absorbs alcohol and, in turn, stops it from coming into contact with the lining of the stomach. This, in turn, slows the absorption rate in the small intestine, where alcohol gets funneled into the bloodstream. The more food a person has in their stomach, the slower they will feel the effects of alcohol.
Learning more about exactly how alcohol makes you drunk can also help you better understand how long it takes for alcohol to make you feel drunk.
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How Does the Body Process Alcohol?
When we drink alcohol, it first travels through our digestive system – but that’s not where it gets processed. Unlike food, alcohol enters the upper gastrointestinal tract and begins to be absorbed straight into the bloodstream. Since blood rapidly circulates throughout the entire body, you may begin to feel the effects of alcohol throughout your entire body right away. This is why a single drink can start to make you feel drunk within minutes, while a three-course meal will only make you feel full after you’ve finished your dessert and paid for the bill.
Given enough time, the body can metabolize 90-98% of the alcohol that comes into its system. Whatever alcohol doesn’t get metabolized then gets removed through urine, feces, vomit, or sweat.
That said, when alcohol is consumed at a rate faster than the body can process it (about one drink per hour), damage occurs to the brain and other tissues. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as 5 or more drinks for males and 4 or more drinks for females in about 2 hours. Pacing out your drinks so that you are not binge drinking can help give the body enough time to metabolize alcohol without causing as much harm.
In general, moderate to zero alcohol consumption is the best way to prevent health consequences from alcohol use. The CDC defines moderate drinking as no more than 2 drinks a day for men or 1 drink a day for women.
Factors That Affect How Long Alcohol Stays in Your System
In the same way that weight, sex, food consumption, and age determine how quickly and how much alcohol affects you, these factors also influence the amount of time that alcohol will stay in your system. While there are many “remedies” on the market for speeding up the process of getting alcohol out of your system, most have little to no effect.
We’ve all heard the advice to drink coffee to help sober up, but the truth is that coffee does nothing to expel alcohol from the system, and neither does drinking more water or eating a big meal. Once alcohol has entered your system, the only thing you can do is let time do its work.
Of course, since alcohol causes dehydration and low blood sugar, drinking plenty of water and eating food during and after drinking is essential to help offset the negative effects of alcohol and hangovers.
If you have concerns about how alcohol is affecting your well being, it may be time to seek professional guidance to reduce or even eliminate your alcohol consumption. At Monument, you can speak with a specialized physician about how your body is processing alcohol, and learn about your treatment options, like medication to stop drinking. You can also join free therapist-moderated alcohol support groups and explore one-on-one therapy to learn effective tools for cutting back. It’s never too early or too late to start changing your relationship with alcohol and improving your overall health and happiness.
- American Addiction Centers. “How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?” https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/how-long-in-system. Accessed Aug 7, 2022
- Healthline. “How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Body?” https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-alcohol-stay-in-your-system
- UAMSHealth. “Can Drinking a Lot of Hot, Black Coffee Help You Sober Up After Drinking a Lot of Alcohol?” https://uamshealth.com/medical-myths/can-drinking-a-lot-of-hot-black-coffee-help-you-sober-up-after-drinking-a-lot-of-alcohol/
- The Recovery Village. “How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your System?” https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/alcohol-abuse/how-long-does-alcohol-stay-in-your-system/
- Alcohol Rehab Guide. “How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your System?” https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/alcohol/how-long-alcohol-stay-system/#:~:text=Blood%3A%20Alcohol%20is%20eliminated%20from,hours%20via%20the%20traditional%20method.
- Bradford Health Services. “Alcohol 101: Ten Facts You Didn’t Know.” https://bradfordhealth.com/alcohol-101-learning-new-facts-remembering-what-you-forgot/
- Cleveland Clinic. “Are Your Drinks Getting Stronger, or Are You Just Getting Older?” https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-youll-feel-alcohols-effects-more-after-age-65/