A common question asked by many people who drink alcohol is, “how long does alcohol stay in your system?” While alcohol is generally metabolised at a constant rate of about one hour for one standard drink, the length of time it takes the body to process alcohol largely depends on a range of factors, such as age, weight, genetics, and health.
Read here to find out more about how the body processes alcohol, the different factors that influence this, and the length of time it takes for alcohol to actually leave your body.
How Does the Body Process Alcohol?
The human body follows a pretty standard process when metabolising alcohol. However, the time it takes alcohol to leave your body is heavily influenced by how much alcohol has been consumed.
After consumption, alcohol enters the digestive system. Although many people would expect it to be digested in the same way other drinks and food are, this isn’t true. Alcohol is processed much quicker, and a high percentage of the substance is metabolised.
Once entering the digestive system, alcohol quickly travels to the stomach and small intestines. Around 20% of the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream in the stomach. The remaining 80% of the alcohol is absorbed through the small intestine and directly into the bloodstream. Here it is transported throughout the entire body. Because of this, alcohol impacts many different parts of the body.
The majority of alcohol consumed eventually ends up in the liver, where alcohol metabolism occurs. This is why long-term alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction have a large impact on liver health.
An enzyme in the liver called alcohol dehydrogenase breaks alcohol down into acetaldehyde, which helps the alcohol break further down into substances that the rest of the body can easily absorb. The human body is very successful at processing alcohol – it is estimated that around 90% to 98% of all alcohol that enters the body is absorbed and metabolised. The remaining alcohol is removed through sweat, urine, and vomit.
As mentioned, the liver can process around one standard drink in about one hour. However, if you consume more than this and at a quicker rate, your system can become saturated, increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning, which can occur after binge drinking.
Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)
Although alcohol is metabolised at a steady rate, many people feel the effects of alcohol at different intensities and for different amounts of time due to differences in blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
BAC is the percentage of alcohol present in a person’s bloodstream. For most people, one ounce of alcohol will produce a 0.015% blood alcohol level. However, the more alcohol is consumed, the longer it will stay in your system.
When a person’s blood alcohol levels reach above 0.5%, the ‘positive’ effects of alcohol start to wear off, and feelings of happiness can quickly turn to disorientation and irritability.
A BAC of 0.08% considers a person to be legally intoxicated in most countries. In the UK, you are prohibited from driving if your blood alcohol content is 0.08% or above. This is the most common way to measure how much alcohol is still in your system.
Factors That Affect Alcohol Metabolism
There are a number of environmental, genetic, mental, and physical health factors that can affect blood alcohol content and how we react to alcohol.
Although body weight barely impacts the speed at which the body can process alcohol, it massively impacts BAC and level of intoxication. Low water fatty tissue does not absorb alcohol at the same rate as high water muscle tissue can. This means that those with more body fat generally have a higher BAC.
Women and men break alcohol down at very different rates as women typically have less dehydrogenase. This means that women will reach higher blood alcohol levels than men even when drinking the same amount of alcohol. Women also have a higher percentage of body fat, influencing how long it takes for alcohol to leave the system.
If food is present in the stomach, alcohol will be quickly absorbed. This is why drinking alcohol on an empty stomach causes people to feel the effects quicker.
Strength of Drink
Some drinks have a higher percentage of alcohol than others. If you drink a stronger drink, this will increase the absorption rate. In turn, the alcohol will stay in your system for longer.
If you have a generally healthy body, you will process alcohol quicker, especially if you have a healthy liver. However, it will be harder to eliminate alcohol from your body if you have liver damage.
As alcohol is a depressant, your symptoms may worsen when drinking if you have a mental health disorder. Certain medications, such as anti-anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications, also impact metabolism rates which can result in a higher BAC level.
How Long After Drinking Can Tests Detect Alcohol?
Once consumed, alcohol travels through the body within your blood. Because of this, a number of tests can be used to detect alcohol.
For example, urine tests can detect alcohol 12 to 48 hours after you have consumed alcohol. Urine tests work by detecting alcohol metabolites.
Breath tests, however, detect alcohol around 24 hours after use. In contrast, alcohol can be detected in hair follicles for up to 90 days if a hair test is used.
Risk of Alcohol Abuse
Drinking alcohol is extremely common in the United Kingdom. In 2019 it was reported that 54% of adults drank every week. As with any drug, there is always a risk of substance abuse if you partake in excessive alcohol consumption. The good news is that there are various evidence-based treatment options that can support you at any stage of your recovery journey.
Understanding blood alcohol concentrations and how fast alcohol leaves your system can help prevent adverse outcomes of drinking excess alcohol. However, if you believe you or a loved one is struggling with drinking safely and in moderation, then it is best to seek professional medical advice.
If you are struggling with drinking moderately, there are a range of addiction treatment options available to support you in recovery. The severity of your alcohol use will determine which treatment is most suitable for you. Irrespective of the severity, you will have the opportunity to select from inpatient and outpatient treatment options.
Inpatient treatment includes staying in a safe residential environment where you will receive round-the-clock care to support you. In contrast, outpatient addiction treatment options enable you to remain at home whilst undergoing treatment.
Whether you attend an inpatient or outpatient treatment centre, treatment options may include the following:
- One-to-one therapy
- Group therapy
- Behavioural therapy
- Addiction medicine
- Support groups
Typically, a combination of the above treatments is most effective.
Contact Us Today
If you are wondering how long alcohol stays in your system due to being worried about your drinking behavior, you are not alone. Reach out to us today to discuss rehabilitation and treatment options. Alternatively, if you are worried about a loved one, we can offer support, guidance, and information surrounding treatment centres and options.