How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

Written by Thomas Christiansen

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Trisha Sippel, PhD

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Last Updated - 8/5/2021

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Updated 08/05/2021

Key Takeaways

  • The length of time will vary between different people
  • There are many factors that affect how long alcohol will stay in your system.
  • Alcohol can be detected in breath, blood, saliva, urine, and hair
  • The length of time it can be detected depends on where the sample that is being tested is taken from

How long alcohol stays in your system depends on different factors. The rate at which alcohol is absorbed, metabolized and excreted varies from person to person. Some factors will also affect how long alcohol can be detected through different testing methods.

Alcohol Absorption, Metabolization, and Excretion

How is alcohol metabolized? When a person drinks, alcohol is first absorbed through their digestive system and into their blood. It will then circulate throughout the body, including the liver, where it will be broken down or metabolized. Once metabolized, the byproducts of alcohol are excreted in the urine.

How the Body Absorbs Alcohol

When drinking alcohol, it will enter your digestive system and be absorbed into the blood mostly through the lining of the stomach and the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum). There are several different factors that can affect a person’s absorption of alcohol, including their age, weight, gender, etc. The rate of alcohol absorption depends on how much alcohol you drink and how fast you drink it. Eating will slow down alcohol absorption, as it will slow the absorption in the stomach.

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How the Body Processes Alcohol

Once in the bloodstream, alcohol will circulate through the body. In the brain, alcohol will interact with neurotransmitter receptors and give you the feeling of being drunk. It will also circulate through the liver, where it will be metabolized. Alcohol metabolism in the liver occurs with an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase.

How fast alcohol metabolizes should be roughly the same between different people, since it depends on how fast the enzyme can break it down. However, people can also have different variations of the enzyme that are faster or slower than normal. In general, the liver is able to process about one drink per hour. One drink is defined as:

  • One shot of liquor (40% alcohol, or 80 proof)
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 12 fluid ounces of beer (5% alcohol)

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How the Body Excretes Alcohol

Alcohol leaves the body through a person’s breath, sweat or urine. More than 90% of alcohol consumed is broken down and eliminated in the liver. Some alcohol is not broken down but is excreted in its original form in urine, breath or sweat. Sweating out alcohol will not help to eliminate it faster, as only 2% to 5% of alcohol consumed is excreted in sweat, breath or urine.

Legal Alcohol Limit

The legal alcohol limit while driving is 0.08. This reflects the blood alcohol content, meaning that 0.08 percent of the blood is alcohol.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Breath?

Alcohol can be excreted in the breath, which is reflective of how much alcohol is in the blood. An alcohol breath test, or breathalyzer, can detect alcohol on a person’s breath for 12 to 24 hours after drinking. The time it takes for the alcohol to no longer be detected in a person’s breath will depend on how much they drank and how fast they metabolize alcohol. There is no easy way to get alcohol off your breath; only time will decrease your blood-alcohol level and how much is in your breath.

Other Alcohol Testing Methods

Besides a breathalyzer, there are other alcohol testing methods that can be used to detect alcohol in a person’s system. Some of these tests look for alcohol (ethyl alcohol directly), but others detect a metabolite of alcohol, ethyl glucuronide (EtG). The amount of time that alcohol can be detected in a person’s system depends on where it is being tested from.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Urine?

An alcohol urine test is not usually done to test for alcohol in a person’s system. Blood or breath are the preferred ways to test. However, alcohol can be detected in urine for 12 to 24 hours after drinking. EtG is detectable in urine for six hours to four days following alcohol consumption.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Saliva?

Alcohol can also be detected in saliva. It usually takes about two hours for saliva levels to match blood alcohol levels, but alcohol can be detected in saliva for 12 to 24 hours. Alcohol saliva tests can be done using alcohol saliva test strips that detect ethyl alcohol concentrations greater than 0.02%.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Blood?

The test used most often, other than a breathalyzer, is a blood-alcohol test. A blood-alcohol test is more accurate than a breathalyzer and can confirm how much alcohol is in a person’s system. This is often done if a person is suspected of driving while under the influence (DUI) to have as evidence in court. Blood alcohol testing methods can detect alcohol in blood from one to twelve hours after stopping drinking.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Hair?

An alcohol hair test will look for the alcohol metabolite EtG, which can be detected in hair for at least 90 days following alcohol use.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Breastmilk?

While avoiding alcohol use when breastfeeding is the safest option, a breastfeeding mother can have one drink per day and it should not affect the infant. It’s suggested that she waits for 2 to 2.5 hours after drinking to feed her infant. There are breastmilk alcohol test strips that mothers can use to test their breastmilk for alcohol.

Factors Affecting Alcohol How Long Alcohol is in the System

There are many factors that affect how long alcohol will stay in a person’s system. For example, there are gender differences in alcohol metabolism after consumption. Women tend to have alcohol in their system longer when drinking the same amount as men. Other factors include:

  • How fast alcohol is consumed
  • The amount of alcohol consumed
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Body fat content
  • Ethnicity
  • Overall health
  • Time since last meal
  • If a person is taking medications

Finding Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Drinking too much alcohol can be dangerous and can lead to alcohol poisoning. This is especially dangerous in individuals who process alcohol slower than others. Frequently drinking too much can be a sign of alcohol abuse. Alcohol addiction treatment can help a person with an alcohol use disorder stop using alcohol.

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