How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

How long alcohol stays in your system depends on your liver's ability to process it. The level present is measured in blood alcohol concentration or BAC.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

How long alcohol stays in your system depends on a number of external and internal factors, some of which are unique to every person. Characteristics like age, weight, sex, and medical history all play a part in how concentrated the alcohol in your blood is after drinking – commonly known as blood alcohol concentration or BAC. However, virtually all humans metabolize alcohol at a constant rate of 20 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) per hour, or 0.015 BAC every hour. This means that a blood alcohol level of 80 mg/dL will take four hours to metabolize and a BAC of 0.08 will take approximately 5.33 hours before there is no measurable alcohol in the blood.

However, this doesn’t mean that alcohol is completely gone from the body. Once metabolized, alcohol exits the body through urine, sweat, and saliva. When a person drinks more than their liver is able to process, it stays in the body for longer periods of time. Moreover, your body type and lifestyle may impact how concentrated the alcohol already in your body is.

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Alcohol’s Journey through the Body

Typically, alcohol is ingested through the mouth and moves to the stomach, where it begins to be absorbed by the body through our blood. In fact, roughly 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and deposited into the bloodstream before being sent directly to the brain and other organs. Additionally, about 80% of alcohol is digested by the small intestines – which are much more efficient at metabolizing alcohol and why people drinking on an empty stomach are more likely to feel stronger side effects.

From the time you drink a glass of wine or take a shot, that alcohol could remain in your system (urine, hair, et cetera) for days.

Once alcohol hits the bloodstream, it travels to the brain, liver, and other body tissues. The liver can process about one ounce of alcohol per hour. As such, most public health authorities advise drinking no more than one alcoholic beverage per hour. How well your liver is able to process alcohol will determine your BAC. For the most part, certain biological differences and lifestyle habits have been shown to affect how alcohol interacts with the liver and bloodstream.

The table below illustrates the factors affecting your BAC.

Factor
Effect
Blood circulation
People at risk or suffering from low blood circulation are more likely to become intoxicated quickly because alcohol can remain in the blood longer.
Body fat
High body fat percentage can lead to alcohol remaining in the body longer.
Empty stomach
Drinking on an empty stomach can result in rapid intoxication because alcohol is allowed to pass through the gut and intestines so quickly. The presence of food in the stomach also forces alcohol to remain there longer, slowing absorption.
Older men
Older men are more likely than younger men to become intoxicated on smaller amounts of alcohol due to a reduction in certain enzymes that process alcohol.
Menopause
Menopausal women may become more intoxicated on smaller amounts of alcohol due to hormonal changes.
Drinking habits
Heavy drinkers (especially those who drink habitually) produce more alcohol-processing enzymes and will need to drink larger amounts to become intoxicated.
Ancestry
People of East Asian ancestry are more likely to lack the specific enzymes responsible for breaking down alcohol, resulting in rapid intoxication and increased side effects like “flush syndrome”.
Medication
Prescription medications can interfere with the absorption of alcohol. Specifically, antidepressants, antibiotics, allergy medication, and diabetes medications affect the way the body processes alcohol.
Time between drinks
The longer you wait between drinks, the better your liver is able to process the alcohol in your system. Overloading the liver can lead to alcohol poisoning, overdose, and death.

How Long Is Alcohol Detectable in the Body?

Many people mistakenly believe that having no measurable BAC means they have no alcohol in their system. On the contrary, BAC is merely a measure of alcohol’s concentration in the blood – which is filtered rapidly and on a continuous, unending basis. Subsequently, alcohol can only be detected in the blood for several hours after the last drink. Other measuring tools for BAC – including breathalyzers, urine samples, and sweat tests – only estimate the amount of alcohol present in blood.

Still, there are multiple other means of testing for the presence of alcohol in the body. As stated above, about 20% of alcohol is absorbed in the stomach and 80% in intestines. What’s leftover is between 2% and 8% of alcohol that was not fully processed, leaving behind alcohol metabolites. This alcohol is removed from the body through sweat, urine, and saliva. Multiple tests with varying metabolite sensitivities have been developed that can detect alcohol in the body up to 90 days after last use.

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Alcohol Tests

Blood
Detectable for several hours after the last drink. BAC can even rise for a short time after the last drink.
Breath
Commonly tested with breathalyzers. These tests can detect alcohol up to 24 hours after the last drink.
Urine
Some urine tests are more sensitive (and expensive) than others. Advanced tests can detect alcohol up to 3 or 4 days after the last drink, though 12 to 48 hours is more common.
Saliva
Using a saliva swab, alcohol can be detected between 10 and 24 hours after the last drink.
Hair
Alcohol can be detected in hair strands for up to 3 months after the last drink.
Breastmilk
Alcohol can be detected in breastmilk as long as it is still detectable in blood.

Alcohol and Breastfeeding

The belief that breastmilk can be cleared of alcohol with the “pump and dump” method is false. As long as there is alcohol in the body, it will be present in breastmilk. Pumping does not get rid of alcohol any faster. Each woman is different and will process alcohol at varying rates of times.

Because there is no safe amount of alcohol for babies, doctors recommend breastfeeding prior to drinking or pumping extra milk beforehand. The Mayo Clinic suggests waiting at least two to three hours after a shot, can of beer, or glass of wine, before breastfeeding.

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  • Medically Reviewed: July 9, 2019

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