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How Long Does Alcohol Stay in the System?

We all know that alcohol and its side effects tend to linger around in your body, but how long does alcohol actually stay in your system?

After you’ve drained your glass, your body immediately works to get rid of it. You could be feeling the effects of it for an hour or more, depending on how your body metabolizes alcohol and whether you’ve had more drinks in the meantime.

Thanks to impressive advances in alcohol consumption research, we know a lot more than we used to about what counts as problem drinking, how the body processes liquor, and how long the effects of alcohol persist.

If you are worried enough about this question to ask, you or a loved one may already have an alcohol use disorder, and you should consider talking to a doctor or addiction professional.

The Effects of Alcohol – How Long Do They Last?

Alcohol is metabolized at a constant rate, but the duration of its effects can vary from person to person. That’s because your blood alcohol concentration – the ratio of alcohol to water in your blood – depends on a range of factors. So, if two generally healthy people have each consumed one standard drink, their bodies may metabolize those drinks in a similar length of time, but their BAC levels may be very different.

It is also important to know how much alcohol is in your drink. Some drinks have a higher alcohol content, affecting how much alcohol you consume from one beverage.  A standard unit of alcohol consists of a one-ounce shot of liquor, a 12-ounce bottle or can of beer, or a five-ounce glass of wine. On average, the body will take one hour to metabolize any one of these.

The effects you experience while your body is processing the alcohol depend on several factors, such as how tired you are, whether you have eaten, your consumption of non-alcoholic beverages, and whether you have ingested other substances, including prescription medications.

Metabolizing Alcohol

The speed at which your body processes alcohol and the amount of alcohol you consume are the two major factors in determining how long alcohol stays in your system. Alcohol is processed or metabolized in the body more quickly than most substances, and a very high percentage of the amount consumed is metabolized.

Alcohol typically enters the body through the mouth. It then travels down the esophagus and into the stomach. Small blood vessels encounter alcohol there and transport it throughout the bloodstream. Approximately 20% of the alcohol that enters the bloodstream does so in the stomach. The remaining 80% travels through the small intestine and enters the bloodstream there.

Once in the blood, alcohol is rapidly transported throughout the entire body, which is why alcohol impacts so many different body systems. Most of the alcohol that enters the body eventually ends up in the liver, where most of the metabolic process takes place. Because the liver does most of the heavy lifting in alcohol processing, it is generally the part of the body that is most impacted by heavy or long-term alcohol abuse.

The two enzymes that are primarily responsible for alcohol processing are found in the liver. They break down ethyl alcohol (drinking alcohol) into acetaldehyde, which is then further broken down into substances the body can absorb.

A third enzyme, catalase, is present in cells throughout the body, and metabolizes a small amount of alcohol. Acetaldehyde released into the brain via catalase metabolism can combine with neurotransmitters to form tetrahydros. Some scientists believe the presence of tetrahydros can determine whether someone has an addiction, but this is a contentious position that has not been verified or refuted by research.

What Influences the Rate of Metabolism?

Many factors influence alcohol processing speed, including gender, body weight, medications or recreational drugs, food intake, medical health issues, and drinking pace. This means that no two people metabolize alcohol at the exact same rate. However, alcohol processing is remarkably consistent for most individuals. As a general rule, most people process one standard drink per hour.

The human body is highly effective at processing alcohol. Between 90% and 98% of all alcohol that enters the body is metabolized and absorbed. What remains is excreted through sweat, urine, vomit, and feces.

There are limits to what the body is capable of, though, and if alcohol consumption outpaces the body’s ability to metabolize it, alcohol poisoning can occur.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and Alcohol Poisoning

The amount of alcohol in the body is measured in blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels. Also known as blood alcohol content, BAC is the percentage of alcohol in the blood. For example, in the United States, a BAC of 0.1 would mean that the individual’s blood is 0.1% alcohol. In many countries, someone with a BAC of 0.08 is considered legally intoxicated. A person’s BAC is the most common measure of how much alcohol remains in their system.

A blood alcohol level of 0.45 is lethal for approximately half of the population. At around 0.15 BAC, most people start to vomit due to the body’s inability to metabolize the alcohol fast enough. Once BAC reaches about 0.35, most individuals become unconscious. However, if alcohol is consumed very rapidly, as might occur in binge drinking, lethal blood levels may be reached before the individual passes out. This can result in alcohol poisoning. This is a potentially fatal condition, and medical attention should immediately be sought for the individual.

Detecting Alcohol in the System

Determining how long alcohol is detectable in the body depends on many variables, including which kind of drug test is being used.

  • Blood: Alcohol is eliminated from the bloodstream gradually, reducing BAC by about 0.015 per hour. Alcohol can show up in a blood test for up to 12 hours.
  • Urine: Alcohol can be detected in urine for up to 3 to 5 days via the ethyl glucuronide (EtG) test or 10 to 12 hours via the traditional method.
  • Hair: Like other drugs, alcohol can be detected in a hair follicle drug test for up to 90 days.

Getting Sober

Understanding BAC and the rate that alcohol is metabolized by the system can help prevent the dangerous consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. However, if you’re someone who struggles to drink safely and in moderation, it may be time to seek professional help.

Quitting drinking on your own is dangerous and should never be attempted. 1000 Islands Addictions Treatment Centre will provide you with a safe place and round-the-clock medical supervision for withdrawal. We will then design an individualized plan to help you overcome your addiction and the causes that lie beneath it. Call us today for more information.

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