Alcohol is the most widely abused substance in the United States. As of 2021, more than 219 million people ages 12 and older (78% of this age group) reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lives and approximately 133 million (47.5%) reported drinking alcohol in the last month.
Although alcohol is widely accepted in many American cultures, alcohol abuse comes with many short and long-term risks.
The amount of time it takes for alcohol to be fully cleared from the system can vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the amount consumed, the individual’s body composition, and how quickly their liver metabolizes alcohol. However, the average healthy adult can metabolize about one standard drink per hour.
Understanding Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and How Alcohol is Metabolized
The most common way to measure the amount of alcohol in a person’s system is by measuring their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level. This can be measured using a breathalyzer device. The subject simply blows into a device reader and using the alcohol in their breath, the device calculates BAC.
The legal limit for driving in most states is a BAC level of 0.08%. However, it is important to note that even small amounts of alcohol can impair cognitive and motor functions, so it is always best to avoid driving after drinking. Try to eat food, drink plenty of water, and wait several hours to let the alcohol leave your system before driving. Better yet, have someone sober provide you with a ride.
Typically, it takes about one hour for the body to metabolize one standard drink. A standard drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. However, many alcoholic beverages, particularly cocktails, contain more than a single drink. If you were to consume two standard drinks, it would take about two hours for your body to fully metabolize the alcohol. But if you drink more than that per hour, it will take longer for your body to get the alcohol out of your system.
Factors that Affect How Long Alcohol Stays in Your System
The process of alcohol metabolism begins as soon as alcohol hits your gastrointestinal tract. The liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is then converted into acetic acid and water. The alcohol metabolism process can take some time, and there are several factors that can affect the speed at which alcohol is metabolized, which thereby affects how long alcohol stays in your system. These include:
Weight and Body Composition
People who have a higher percentage of body fat or weigh more will metabolize alcohol more slowly than those who have a lower percentage of body fat.
Alcohol is not water-soluble, which means it is distributed throughout the body’s water-containing tissues, instead, such as muscles and organs. Fat tissue does not contain much water though, so alcohol is not as readily absorbed into it. Instead, the alcohol remains in the body waiting for the liver to be able to process it.
Biological sex is another factor that can affect alcohol metabolism. Females generally have a lower percentage of body fat and water than men, which means that the alcohol they drink is more concentrated in their blood. This makes women more susceptible to the effects of alcohol in lower concentrations and can also mean that it takes longer for them to metabolize it.
Amount of Alcohol Consumed and the Rate of Consumption
How much someone drinks and how quickly also plays a significant role in how quickly it is metabolized. If someone drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short period, their liver will not be able to metabolize it as quickly as if they were to drink the same amount over a more extended period. Remember, the liver can only process about one standard drink per hour–any more than that causes alcohol to build up in your bloodstream, causing intoxicating effects.
How Long Can Alcohol Be Detected in the Body? (Urine, Blood, and Breath Tests)
The length of time that alcohol can be detected in a drug test depends on the type of test being used. There are several different types of drug tests that can be used to detect the presence of alcohol in your system, with the most widely used being breath tests, blood tests, and urine tests.
Breath tests are commonly used to detect the presence of alcohol in the body and current intoxication, especially in cases of suspected drunk driving. Breath tests measure the amount of alcohol in the breath and are typically administered using a handheld device known as a breathalyzer. Most police and first responders carry breathalyzer devices while on the job.
Breath tests are usually very accurate and reliable, and they can detect the presence of alcohol in the body for up to 24 hours after the last drink (depending on how much you drank).
Blood tests measure the amount of alcohol in the blood and are typically used in situations where a more precise measurement of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is needed, such as in legal cases or to confirm intoxication in a medical setting. However, blood tests are fairly invasive, difficult to administer, and costly, so they are only used in necessary circumstances.
Blood tests can detect the presence of alcohol in the body for up to 12 hours after the last drink.
Urine tests are often used to detect illicit and prescription drugs in the body, but they can also be used to detect the presence of alcohol. However, they are less accurate at detecting alcohol than breath or blood tests.
Urine tests are typically used as a screening tool and are often used in workplace drug testing programs, but most employers are screening for the use of illicit drugs–not alcohol. Still, urine tests can detect alcohol in your system for up to 48 hours after the last drink.
Can You Detox From Alcohol Quickly?
There is no real way to get alcohol to leave your system faster, as the only way to do so is to wait for your liver to process it.
If you are addicted to alcohol, you may experience symptoms of withdrawal after all of the alcohol leaves your system. Unfortunately, alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous, and in some cases, it can be life-threatening. As a result, it is always best to detox under the close supervision and support of a medical provider.
Alcohol detox centers can prescribe medications, monitor your symptoms, and keep you hydrated and healthy so you don’t have to worry about alcohol withdrawal symptoms or your safety. If you or a loved one need to detox from alcohol or get help for alcoholism, please call our team at Next Step Recovery today to learn about your alcohol detox and rehab options in North Carolina.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): Alcohol Use in the United States: Age Groups and Demographic Characteristics, Retrieved May 2023 from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-use-united-states-age-groups-and-demographic-characteristics
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Impaired Driving: Get the Facts, Retrieved May 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/transportationsafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): Alcohol Metabolism: An Update, Retrieved May 2023 from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa72/aa72.htm
- National Library of Medicine: ALCOHOL METABOLISM, Retrieved May 2023 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3484320/