How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
How Is Alcohol Processed in the Body?
Alcohol is metabolized in the liver, and it takes about an hour to metabolize one ounce of it.1 One ounce of alcohol is the amount in a “standard drink”—12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor.1 Food and water slow down the rate at which alcohol enters the bloodstream. Since women have less water in their bodies than men, women have higher concentrations of alcohol when they drink the same amount of alcohol as men.1,2
The body readily accepts and absorbs alcohol as soon as you take a drink. The body follows a pretty straightforward process when digesting alcohol. The length of time alcohol stays in the system is influenced by how much a person drinks, both how much alcohol in that moment and how much alcohol over the life of the person.1 If you’ve ever had more than your “fair share” of drinks, you may recall a point where the “buzz” started to turn bad, which happens when the alcohol digestion process gets overwhelmed. After a certain point, the blood and tissues become a reservoir for any alcohol that has not been metabolized. If this happens too many times, damage to the brain and tissues of the body can develop.2,3
How Is Alcohol Digested?
Alcohol is one the most accessible depressant drugs on the market. There are also high rates of alcoholism in the US as well as around the world. As a depressant, alcohol slows down central nervous system processes, affecting nearly all physical and mental activity.1
Unlike food or other types of drugs, alcohol requires little to no assistance to break it down into a digestible form. Once in the stomach, 20 percent of the alcohol is absorbed directly into the small blood vessels that carry water and nutrients throughout the body. The remaining 80 percent moves into the small intestines where it enters another group of small blood vessels that travel through the body.1
The rate at which alcohol enters the bloodstream slows down when ingested with food.1 Slower absorption rates help to increase the time it takes a person to get fully intoxicated.
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Liver Metabolism Rates
Once alcohol enters the bloodstream, it travels to the liver where it is metabolized.3 On average, the liver takes one hour to metabolize one ounce of alcohol, and each drink thereafter will increase the time the liver takes to do so. So, the more you drink, the longer alcohol stays in the system. For most people, one ounce of alcohol will produce a .015% blood alcohol concentration, meaning 0.15 grams of alcohol for every 100 mL of blood.4
Once a person’s blood alcohol levels go above .05%, alcohol’s negative effects start to increase.
Once a person’s blood alcohol levels go above .05%, alcohol’s negative effects start to increase.5 Feelings of calm, happiness and relaxation can start to turn into depression, irritability, and disorientation.1 These changes represent the two-phase or “biphasic” effect of alcohol in the body: alcohol can feel helpful in small doses, but the larger the dose, the more likely it is to cause harm.6 Once a person reaches the second phase, damage to the brain and body is more likely.
Health Conditions Caused by Alcoholism
Alcoholism creates damaging effects to the body over time. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, people who suffer from alcoholism and have a long history of use are at risk of developing serious, chronic conditions. Some of the more common alcohol-related conditions include:7
- Liver disease.
- Fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Mood Disorders.
- Anxiety disorders.
Alcohol is absorbed into the small blood vessels that attach to the stomach and small intestines.1 When the bloodstream has to absorb large amounts of alcohol, the excess gets absorbed into tissues of the body. So, someone who’s drinking faster than the liver can metabolize will start to accumulate alcohol in their blood and body tissues. Once a person’s blood-alcohol concentration exceeds .05%, the blood and body tissues start to absorb any excess amounts.5
The Centers for Disease Control account for this difference in their definition of excessive drinking: 4 drinks on one occasion for women, and 5 for men.
When comparing men and women, body chemistry can also affect a person’s alcohol absorption rate. A man’s body tends to have more water content than a woman’s, with men averaging around 61 percent water compared to 52 percent for women.1 Any amount of water content will help to dilute alcohol concentrations in the body, so the higher the water content, the less concentrated alcohol levels will become. Thus, women have higher alcohol concentrations when drinking the same amount of alcohol as their male counterparts.1 Lower body-water content can also make a woman’s body more susceptible to the damaging effects of alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control account for this difference in their definition of excessive drinking: 4 drinks on one occasion for women, and 5 for men.8
- UC Santa Cruz. (2015). Alcohol and Your Body.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1997). Alcohol Metabolism. NIAAA, 35, 371.
- Zakhari, S., National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Overview: How Is Alcohol Metabolized by the Body?
- Bowling Green State University. (n.d.). Alcohol Metabolism.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment.
- Addicott, M.A., Marsh-Richard, D.M., Mathias, C.W., Dougherty, D.M. (2007). The biphasic effects of alcohol: comparisons of subjective and objective measures of stimulation, sedation, and physical activity. Alcohol Clin Exp Res., 31(11), 1883-1890.
- Shield, K.D., Parry, C., Rehm, J. (2013). Focus On: Chronic Diseases and Conditions Related to Alcohol Use. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 35(2), 155-173.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Fact Sheets-Alcohol Use and Your Health.