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How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your Body

Alcohol, for good and bad, is a deeply ingrained part of our culture and is regularly consumed to celebrate an occasion, mourn a tragedy, or even alleviate boredom. In the U.S. more than two out of three American adults will consume at least four alcoholic drinks per week. Although moderate alcohol consumption does not pose serious health concerns, and in fact can provide health benefits, few people, especially young people, actually drink in moderation, which is why alcoholism is an epidemic in this country.

If you have a loved one who suffers from alcohol abuse, you are likely besides yourself, sick with worry. You fear the damage the alcohol might wreak on their body as well as their future. You worry about the bad decisions they might make under the influences; decisions that could not only ruin their lives but other innocent lives as well. In such cases, an intervention might be required.

For those planning an intervention, we think it is crucial you confront your loved one when they are sober and have a clear mind. Before this confrontation, however, you should familiarize yourself with how alcohol works, and what alcohol withdrawal does to your body.

Below, we will discuss how alcohol affects the brain and body, how long it lingers in the system, how it can be detected, and some signs of alcohol dependence. Continue reading if you have ever wondered, “How long does alcohol stay in your body?”

Alcohol in the Body

Before we discuss how long alcohol stays in the body, it is crucial you first understand how alcohol works in conjunction with the body. Alcohol chemically breaks down into ethanol and refers to any organic compound structure with an alcoholic grouping, which is a carbon atom of an alkyl group attached to one or more hydroxyl groups (OH).

When consumed, it does not function with the body as a normal drink would and is metabolized at a much higher rate than other foods or drinks. This metabolism from the alcoholic beverages occurs after alcohol has already traveled down the esophagus and into the stomach. There, small blood vessels disperse around one-fifth of that alcohol directly into the bloodstream, which is why people can feel different effects after consumption. The remaining 80% of the alcohol is filtered through the small intestine without entering the bloodstream.

Metabolizing Alcohol

Having entered the bloodstream, alcohol travels quickly throughout the entire body, impacting many different bodily functions. The vast majority of alcohol that enters the body ends up in the liver, which does the brunt of the metabolizing. For most alcohol abusers, the liver is typically the first organ to fail or suffer significant long-term damage.

Two enzymes within the liver break down ethyl alcohol into smaller, more absorbable substances. These enzymes are:

  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase – for social drinkers, alcohol dehydrogenase is an enzyme that breaks down most of the alcohol and turns it into energy.
  • Cytochrome P450 2E1 – for heavy drinkers, this enzyme is much more prominent, and essentially drains the body of energy in order to metabolize the alcohol.

Alcohol and the Brain

To determine how long alcohol stays in your body, you must understand how it interacts with the brain, which communicates with and guides the rest of the body.

Upon entering the bloodstream and traveling throughout the body, alcohol begins to have a numbing effect on the brain, impeding nerve receptors’ ability to send and receive action impulses. As a result, the body and its reaction times go through a slackening effect. This slow down only worsens as more alcohol enters the bloodstream.

Much of this process takes place within the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain in charge of voluntary muscle movements, behavior, and cognitive thinking. Because of this slow down, the brain’s ability to process information lessens, especially when it comes to pain receptors. Accordingly, the body's natural inhibitions, which are meant to protect us from physical or emotional pain, decrease, leading to poor decision making, reasoning, and diminished social grace.

Alcohol has several other immediate adverse effects such as:

Alters the limbic system, our emotional processing center, magnifying emotions.

Interferes with your hypothalamus and pituitary glands by surpassing the release of ADH (Anti-diuretic hormones) responsible for kidney control and water conservation.

Negatively impacts your fine motor skill abilities and throws off the synchronization between the brain and muscles required for movement, whether walking or talking.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

There are a variety of factors that will affect how long alcohol stays in your body. Somewhere between 90%-98% of alcohol will be metabolized, and the remaining percentage will be expelled via sweat glands or in the toilet. Since we all have different bodies and genetic factors, we all metabolize alcohol at different rates. While these rates do vary, most people will metabolize one standard drink, such as a beer, shot, or glass of wine, per hour.

We measure the amount of alcohol in the body and can guess how long it will stay within the system by measuring the percentage of alcohol in your blood. This measurement is known as your BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration). A BAC of .08 is the cusp legally intoxication and denotes that your blood is currently composed of .08% alcohol.

General BAC Scale

A general BAC scale will look this:

  • .04 - One drink, some people will begin to feel relaxed or happy, and experience small impairment.
  • .08 - Two-three drinks, you hit the legal intoxication level, your fine motor skills and cognitive skills are impaired, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
  • .12 – Three to five drinks, heavy impairment, this is typically the range most partiers or bar goers out for a night on the town will fall in.
  • .15 – 5-7 drinks, heavy impairment, with a good chance for vomiting or other unintended side effects such as ‘blacking out.’
  • .30 – Too many drinks, many people will lose consciousness at this point or be too incoherent to function.
  • .40 – Way too many drinks, most people will be sick, unconscious and in desperate need of medical attention.
  • .45 – Fatal drinking levels, if you are brought to the hospital for a stomach pump at a BAC of .45 it is a miracle if you survive.

Factors That Affect How Long Alcohol Stays in the System

As mentioned, this standard drink per hour rule is not the same for everyone. The question of how long does alcohol stay in the body can be altered by a whole host of factors such as:

  • Age – Most younger adults will naturally process alcohol faster and more efficiently than older adults. Their livers and other organs are still young and fresh, and their metabolism works at a far quicker pace.
  • Body composition – Fatty tissue and muscle tissue absorb alcohol at different rates. Since fatty tissues do not have a lot of water in them, they are unable to absorb alcohol at a rate similar to muscle tissue which has a high water concentration. So, those with more body fat will have a higher BAC.
  • Food in your stomach – The more food that is in your stomach, and the more recently you have eaten, the longer it will take for your body to metabolize alcohol, which means a lower BAC. Those who drink on an empty stomach often get drunk or sick faster.
  • Gender – Although the science is not clear, most experts tend to think that men naturally metabolize food and alcohol at quicker rates. Further, women who tend to have a higher concentration of fat composition will have higher BACs.
  • Genetics – Just like with other things, our genetics determine our abilities to perform tasks to a certain extent. For some ethnic groups or individuals, alcohol processes at a faster or slower rate due to an individual's genetic makeup.
  • Health – As a general rule, healthy individuals whose bodies are functioning optimally will process alcohol at a faster rate. Alcoholics who have damaged their liver over time will process alcohol at a far less efficient rate.
  • Medications or other drugs – Certain drugs or medications can affect how the body processes alcohol. For example, blood thinners combined with alcohol can lead to severe kidney damage or increased risk of overdose.
  • Mixers – If you were drinking a mixed drink, soda, energy drink, or juices cause alcohol absorption to occur at a slower pace.
  • Weight – Although body weight does not affect the speed of metabolization, it does affect BAC levels. A 6’8 man can handle significantly more alcohol in their system than a 5’ woman since the same amount of alcohol will constitute a different percentage of blood within their system.

Blood Alcohol Content Tests

A BAC test might occur in an alcohol treatment program, a police investigation, or a late-night highway stop. There are three main methods for testing the percentage of alcohol within the body. They are:

  • Breath test - Breathalyzers are typically employed by cops in the field to confirm a suspected case of driving under the influence. The small percentage of alcohol that is not metabolized will exit by other means, including your breath. Breathalyzers are reasonably accurate measurements of the remaining alcohol within your bloodstream and can detect alcohol for twenty-four hours.
  • Urine Test – Urine tests are used, but their reports are sometimes inaccurate since there is a lag that occurs during the body’s filtration process, which ends in the bladder. It can take two hours for alcohol to be detected in urine, so, alcohol can be completely out of your system for two hours and yet still show up in urine tests. Some modern urine tests can now detect alcohol within the bloodstream for up to four days.
  • Hair Test – A hair test is the most thorough way to test if a person has consumed any alcohol or illegal substance. For the DEA and similar governmental ABCs, hair tests are a routine screening method for prospective new hires. In these, alcohol can be detected for approximately three months, while harder substances can be detected in hair for multiple years.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

The medical community now refers to alcoholism as AUD (alcohol use disorder) to account for the nebulous standards to qualify as an alcoholic. As it stands, alcoholism is a trend of alcohol consumption that results in mental or physical health ailments.

The NIAA defines binge drinking as “A pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men—in about two hours.” SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on more than five days in the past month.

Generally, an alcoholic or someone who falls under the category of “Heavy alcohol use” will hit a few, if not all, of these check marks:

  • A person who binge drinks
  • A person who has difficulty managing the amount they drink
  • A person who has difficulty managing how often they drink
  • A person who uses alcohol to cope with pain, stress, loneliness or other physical or mental burdens
  • A person whose drinking patterns negatively affect their health
  • A person whose drinking patterns negatively affect their work, social, and or love life
  • A person who feels withdrawal symptoms after a break from drinking

Getting Help

For those who are addicted, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will set in after alcohol has left the body. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol abuse, it is crucial that you prevent this train wreck before it reaches full force. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes both mentally and physically to break off an addiction. There are a variety of treatment options at your disposal to get the help that either you or a loved one so desperately needs. Call Peaks Recovery today for further information on alcohol treatment.

sources:

“How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System: Blood, Urine & Breath?” American Addiction Centers, Accessed 25 Oct. 2018

“How Long Alcohol Is in Your System.” AddictionCenter, Accessed 25 Oct. 2018

“How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System (Blood, Urine and Saliva)?” Drug Rehab, Accessed 25 Oct. 2018