How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

By The Fix staff 03/27/19
Alcohol affects your body, as it is processed in the short and long term.
Woman holding ice pack on head, suffering from alcohol effects.

How long does alcohol stay in your system? It’s a question most of us have asked at one point of another. If you’re the designated driver, you may be calculating whether you can have another drink or should call it a night to stay below the legal limit. If you’ve stopped drinking, you might be curious about how long it will take until alcohol entirely clears your system. Or, if you’ve decided to get sober for good and are considering a steps home detox service, you might want to know what to expect.

To understand how long alcohol stays in your system, it’s important to consider the context. Here’s everything you need to know about how your body processes alcohol and how long it takes to clear.

Processing Alcohol During a Night Out

Most people’s bodies are able to process about 1 standard drink an hour. Unfortunately, that can be hard to track, since drink sizes and contents are far from standard. However, in this case the “standard” amount of alcohol is that found in 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a 1.5 ounce-shot of 80-proof liquor.

If you’re only having one drink per hour, your body will process the alcohol fairly seamlessly. However, if you’re drinking more than that (which most people do), your body will begin to store alcohol in the brain, blood and body tissues until it can be processed. This is when many of the negative effects of alcohol begin to take hold.

Of course, the one drink per hour rule is a generalization. There are many factors that will affect how long alcohol stays in your system. For example, women generally process alcohol more slowly than men. Another huge consideration is whether you have food in your stomach. According to Brown University, having food in your stomach slows the absorption of alcohol, giving your body more time to process what you’ve drank. One study found that people who drink on an empty stomach may have a blood alcohol content that is three times higher than those who had a meal before they started drinking.

Processing Alcohol After You’ve Stopped Drinking

If you’re drinking more than one drink per hour, your body needs to play catch up once you finish. The amount of alcohol in a person’s system is often measured using blood alcohol content (BAC), which is also used to set legal limits on how much you can have to drink and still drive safely. Your body can clear 0.015 percent of your blood alcohol content each hour—about the amount contained in one drink. Because of that, it can take many hours to completely clear the alcohol from your system: up to six hours for alcohol to clear from your blood, and up to 24 hours for it to clear from your breath and saliva. 

However, some tests can pick up alcohol consumption much later. That’s because when you drink, your body produces certain enzymes to help break down alcohol. These can be found in your urine for up to 72 hours after you drink. Hair shows an even more long-term picture: alcohol can show up in hair samples up to 90 days after your last drink.

What Happens When You Detox From Alcohol?

People who are heavy drinkers may experience detox when they stop using alcohol. This isn’t caused by alcohol leaving your system, per se. Instead, it’s caused by your body’s neurological systems, which have become accustomed to being depressed by alcohol and being overstimulated when that depressant is removed, according to WebMD.

These symptoms show up as the alcohol in your body is reduced. The first symptoms usually start appearing about six hours after the last drink. That’s when people can experience anxiety, nausea, sweating and more. About 12 to 24 hours after the last drink, someone with serious alcohol dependence might experience frightening side effects, including hallucinations and seizures. Alcohol detox can be dangerous, so people should speak with a medical provider before deciding to do a steps home detox service. However, for people who are not at risk, home detox can be a good option. 

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