How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

Detection Timetable Depends on Many Variables

Wine tasting in wine cellar
How long will alcohol stay in the body?. istockphoto

Determining exactly how long alcohol is detectable in the body depends on many variables, including which kind of drug test is being used. Alcohol can be detected for a shorter time with some tests, but can be "visible" for up to three months in other tests.

The timetable for detecting alcohol in the system is also dependent upon each individual's metabolism, body mass, age, hydration level, physical activity, health conditions and other factors, making it almost impossible to determine an exact time alcohol will show up on a drug test.

The following is an estimated range of times, or detection windows, during which alcohol can be detected by various testing methods:

  • How long is alcohol detectable in breath? Alcohol can be detected in your breath via a breathalyzer test for up to 24 hours.
  • How long does alcohol show up in urine? Alcohol can be detected in urine for 3-5 days via Ethyl Gluconoride (EGT) metabolite or 10-12 hours via traditional method.
  • How long does alcohol stay in blood? Alcohol can show up in a blood test up to 12 hours.
  • How long is alcohol detectable in saliva? A saliva test can be positive for alcohol from 1-5 days.
  • How long does alcohol stay in hair? Like many other drugs, alcohol can be detected with a hair follicle drug test for up to 90 days.

How Alcohol Is Absorbed Into Your Body

The reason that alcohol levels build up in your system is that, for most people, it is absorbed into the system more rapidly than it is metabolized.

For a person weighing 150 pounds, for example, one standard drink will increase their blood-alcohol concentration about .02 percent, but the body can only remove about .016 percent per hour.

Rate of Absorption Can Vary Widely

Therefore, even if you consume only one drink per hour, your BAC level is going to continue to increase.

If you drink more than one per hour, it rises much more rapidly.

The rate at which alcohol is absorbed depends on a lot of variables such as your total body weight, the water content of your body, and how much food you have had to eat prior to drinking.

Gender is a factor, too. Women tend to absorb alcohol at a much quicker rate than men.

How Alcohol Is Removed From Your Body

The body metabolizes alcohol by oxidizing the ethanol to acetaldehyde to acetic acid to carbon dioxide and water. About 5 percent of the alcohol you drink is excreted by the body through sweat, breath, urine, feces, and saliva.

Most of the alcohol you consume, however, is metabolized in the liver, and the liver can process only so much alcohol per hour. The liver metabolizes alcohol at an average rate of .016 BAC per hour (less than one drink).

You Can't Speed Up the Process

Regardless of how fast your body absorbs alcohol, it "burns off" at the rate of .016 BAC per hour. Nothing you do will speed up the process—drinking coffee, drinking water, taking a shower, or even vomiting.

If you know that you are going to have to take a breath, blood, or urine test for the presence of alcohol in your system, the only way you can lower your blood-alcohol content results is to delay taking the test as long as possible after your last drink, because only time will reduce your BAC.

The following table shows the length of time it takes for your body to eliminate alcohol at varying BAC levels:

BAC LevelsHours Until 0
Time Needed for Alcohol to Clear Your System
.016

1

.053.75
.085
.106.25
.1610
,2012.5
.2415

The above times reflect the metabolism rate of a healthy, functioning liver. If you are a heavy or long-time drinker, your liver may not be completely healthy or functional and could take longer to eliminate alcohol from your body.

Other Factors Affecting the Metabolism of Alcohol

The metabolism times above are estimated for the average person. There are other factors that can affect how quickly or slowly your body will eliminate alcohol from your system.

Some of those factors include:

  • Your gender
  • Your ethnicity
  • Your body's fat content
  • Your Age
  • How much you had to eat before drinking or while drinking
  • The fat content of the food you ate
  • Medications that you may be taking
  • How fast you consumed the alcohol

Binge Drinking and Blood Alcohol Testing

To put it simply, if you engage in binge drinking—five or more drinks for men, four for women during a single drinking session—it can take many hours for the alcohol to completely clear from your system.

And yes, it is possible for your system to still have enough alcohol in it the next morning that you could fail a urine or blood test for driving under the influence. You would definitely have a problem trying to pass a test that is designed to detect the presence of any alcohol.

Sources:

American Association for Clinical Chemistry "Drugs of Abuse Testing." Lab Tests Online.

LabCorp, Inc. "Drugs of Abuse Reference Guide."

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol Metabolism: An Update." Alcohol Alert No. 72

OHS Health & Safety Services. "How long do drugs stay in your system - including alcohol?." 

The George Washington University. "Alcohol Absorption." Health Promotion and Prevention Services.

Continue Reading