Alcohol is a major component of the majority of our social lives and can be quite enjoyable. And despite alcohol’s lengthy history with humankind, it can still be rather tricky to pinpoint how much is enough or too much. That brings us to the topic at hand: how long does alcohol stay in your system?
Here is the short answer: alcohol is detectable for up to 6 hours in your blood; about 12 to 24 hours in your breath, urine and saliva; and up to 90 days in a hair follicle1. But even if you don't feel hungover anymore, that doesn’t mean the alcohol has left your system or can no longer be detected in a test. Truth be told, there are numerous factors that determine how long alcohol will stay in your system.
How Alcohol Is Metabolized & Absorbed
When you consume alcohol, it first enters the digestive system. Alcohol isn’t digested like food and other drinks, however. About 20 percent of the alcohol from a single drink moves directly to the blood vessels. From there, it’s carried to your brain. The rest of the 80 percent goes to your small intestine, then directly to your bloodstream.
The final step of the alcohol life cycle is its removal from the body through the liver. Any issues with your liver can slow down this process.
However, for each individual person, their alcohol processing will typically be incredibly consistent. The general rule of thumb is one standard drink per hour. While alcohol is metabolized pretty consistently within an individual, there are still factors that affect the body.
FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE ALCOHOL PROCESSING
There are several factors that will influence how long alcohol stays in your system. Here we will break down several.
This is where things get tricky. As we just mentioned, bodyweight actually has little to no effect on the speed at which your body will process alcohol. However, your weight can greatly influence your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and intoxication level, thus the colloquial term “lightweight.”
It has long been believed that men simply process alcohol faster than women, but there is now some disagreement, as other studies show that men will often have a lower BAC than women after differences in weight and body fat are factored in. This means gender may play no role in how quickly alcohol is processed, but it is more the individual person’s body makeup.
Younger individuals typically can process alcohol faster and more effectively than those who are older. This is why hangovers seem worse the older you get.
#4. BODY COMPOSITION
Contrary to popular belief, individuals with more body fat actually will generally have a higher blood alcohol concentration than those with less. This is because low-water fatty tissue does not absorb alcohol as well as high-water muscle tissue.
This one seems obvious, but those who are healthier will process alcohol faster than those who are not. This is especially true when it comes to the liver. Anyone with liver disease or damaged liver will have a very difficult time processing alcohol when they are drinking.
Genetics do appear to have some impact on the speed at which a person processes alcohol content, but the extent of these differences is as of yet unknown.
TIME SINCE LAST MEAL
There is truth to the belief that drinking alcohol on an empty stomach will cause you to get more drunk. However, the more food a person has in their stomach, the longer it will take their body to absorb and process the alcohol. This will cause the person to have a lower BAC but will keep the alcohol in their system longer.
THE FOODS YOU DRINK ALCOHOL WITH
What you consumed along with the type and amount of alcohol can have an effect on how it is absorbed and processed as well. Energy and sports drinks, in particular, will slow the process.
MEDICATIONS OR OTHER DRUGS
There are certain medications and drugs that can impact how your body will process alcohol, which is why most, if not all, have warnings on the labels to not be consumed when drinking alcohol. Moreover, you should never consume alcohol with any illegal substances.
TYPES OF ALCOHOL & METABOLIZATION RATE
It’s important to know how much alcohol content is in your drink because that will determine how long it takes to metabolize your drink. For example, some beers have a higher alcohol content, which affects how much alcohol you’re consuming from one drink.
The following are general estimates from NHS2 for how long it takes to metabolize different alcoholic beverages, though these times will vary depending on the alcohol level in the beverage.
A small shot of liquor – 1 hour to metabolize
Pint of beer – 2 hours to metabolize
A large glass of wine – 3 hours to metabolize
A few alcoholic beverages – several hours to metabolize
BOTTOM LINE: HOW TO REDUCE THE EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL
Food may help your body absorb alcohol.
Drinking water can help reduce blood alcohol concentrations, though it will still be detectable in a test and take one hour to metabolize 20 mg/dL of alcohol.
Avoid caffeine. It’s a myth that that coffee, energy drinks, or any similar beverages alleviate intoxication quicker.
Take your vitamins. A few supplements use B vitamins and DHM as a key ingredient in its formula in order to reduce the negative effects of alcohol in the body and protect the liver in a natural way.