How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
Alcohol that is consumed is absorbed into the bloodstream, where it circulates throughout the body and gets absorbed by most tissues and organs. The rate at which the alcohol is processed by the liver and then eliminated from the body is a steady 0.015 grams per 100 milliliters per hour. This rate and the amount of alcohol in the body determine how long it will take for it all to be removed. There is nothing that can be done to speed up the process or make alcohol leave the body any sooner.
How long alcohol stays in the body depends on several factors. These include the quantity of alcohol consumed, age, weight, gender, whether or not there is food in the stomach, and also health problems like liver disease. While the general rate at which the liver processes and eliminates ethanol is rarely different from one person to the next, the time it takes for alcohol to be completely removed from the body depends on these factors.
It is possible to put a definite time on alcohol elimination based on the amount of alcohol in the body. The above factors impact how high blood alcohol content will rise, but not the rate at which it will go back down. Except in cases of specific health conditions or certain medications, everyone processes and eliminates alcohol from the body at the same speed. Contrary to the many tricks suggested for sobering up, nothing can increase this rate.
The most common way of measuring alcohol in the body is called blood alcohol content, or BAC. This measurement is usually taken with a breathalyzer. A person’s BAC is measured as a percentage of alcohol in the blood. A measurement of 0.1, for instance, is 0.1 percent or one part of alcohol per 1,000 parts of blood.
It is possible to measure the alcohol content of blood through the breath because of the nature of ethanol. It is a small, volatile compound, which means it vaporizes easily. Every time a person who has been drinking takes a breath and exhales, some of the ethanol in the body vaporizes and is expelled with the breath. This can be measured by a breathalyzer, which converts it into a BAC level based on the amount of ethanol in the breath. The more ethanol is present in an exhalation, the higher the BAC.
How the Body Processes Alcohol
Ethanol is the substance in alcoholic drinks that causes intoxication, that is metabolized by the liver, and that is detected to determine if a person has been drinking. It is a small molecule that is readily absorbed into the bloodstream, through the mouth immediately and more so in the stomach and small intestines as the alcohol is consumed and swallowed.
Once in the bloodstream, alcohol can circulate through the body in about 90 seconds. This is why it is possible to feel the effects so quickly after drinking. Only bone tissue and fat do not absorb alcohol. The greatest effects are experienced as the brain absorbs ethanol, but it is taken up by other tissues and organs as well.
Some of the ethanol will be excreted through sweat, exhalations, and urine, but most of it is processed and metabolized. Ethanol is actually a toxin in the body, and the liver is primarily responsible for breaking it into other substances that are less harmful and that can be excreted. The liver produces an enzyme, called alcohol dehydrogenase, which does the work of breaking down ethanol.
The Speed of Alcohol Processing
Everyone processes ethanol in the liver at the same rate, with a couple of exceptions. Those are for people with liver disease and those taking certain medications, both of which can slow or impair the liver’s ability to metabolize ethanol. The rate of alcohol metabolism, and therefore the rate at which it leaves the body, is 0.015 grams per 100 milliliters per hour. In terms of BAC, this means that the measurement goes down by 0.015 per hour.
This rate can be used to determine how long alcohol stays in the body in different situations. For instance, someone who has a BAC reading of 0.20 will need over 13 hours for all of the alcohol to be processed and leave the body. Someone who blows a 0.08 will require just over five hours for the reading to go down to zero. Getting the alcohol out of the system more quickly is not possible. Recovery from inebriation takes time, and there is nothing that can speed the process.
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Factors that Affect Alcohol Absorption and Inebriation
There are no factors that change the rate at which alcohol is processed and leaves the body, but there are factors that impact absorption, and therefore inebriation. The faster and higher the BAC reading rises in an individual, the longer it will take for the alcohol to leave the body and for the BAC reading to go back to zero.
Gender, for instance, plays a role in absorption and BAC. Women have more body fat than men, which means that the same amount of alcohol is distributed to a smaller amount of body tissue, since fat does not absorb it. The effect is that alcohol is more concentrated in women’s bodies, causing quicker inebriation. For similar reasons, people with higher weights may become inebriated more slowly when drinking. There are several other factors that can impact alcohol absorption and BAC:
- Certain medications interact with alcohol and can cause a number of complications. Some may change how alcohol is absorbed and processed.
- Having food in the stomach can block or slow some of the absorption of alcohol, which slows down inebriation and BAC.
- The quantity of alcohol consumed affects BAC. The more alcohol there is in a consumed drink, the more ethanol will be absorbed and the higher the BAC will be.
- Drinking faster also increases absorption and the rate at which BAC rises.
Indirect Evidence for Long-Term Drinking Patterns
While the actual alcohol consumed does not stay in the body any longer than a few hours, there are tests that can determine if and how much someone has been drinking in the past several days, weeks, and even months. These tests rely on indirect evidence, as they will not find any actual alcohol in the body if a person has not been drinking for several hours or longer.
Some tests that have long been used in health care, like tests of liver enzymes, can show past drinking but not very accurately. There are now newer tests that target chemicals in the body that are unique to the breakdown of alcohol. One example of these is a compound called ethyl glucuronide. It increases in the body as alcohol breaks down and peaks during a hangover. Another is called phosphatidyl ethanol, which is present in the body for up to three weeks after heavy drinking. One group of substances—fatty acid ethyl esters—stay in the hair for months after drinking. These substances can distinguish between light and heavy drinkers.
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Getting Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Someone who is inebriated often and regularly struggles through the process of sobering up or getting in trouble for having a BAC that is too high may have an alcohol use disorder. It is possible to get help, though, and to learn to moderate or stop drinking with professional assistance. Behavioral therapies are the backbone of addiction treatment, but some people also benefit from medications.
Many treatment centers also offer people struggling with alcohol use disorder an array of services to make the process easier and more effective: group therapies, different types of individual therapies, holistic and medical care, screening and treatment for co-occurring mental illnesses, nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes, life skills and planning for the future, including relapse prevention strategies.
Understanding how the body processes alcohol and how long it stays in the system is important for knowing how drinking can be harmful. But it is also important to understand that moderate and healthy drinking does not result in inebriation. If you or someone you care about is struggling with drinking, reach out for help and work with the dedicated professionals who can guide you to a healthier lifestyle.