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How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

How long alcohol stays in your system largely depends on how much alcohol you drink. Tests can detect alcohol for hours, days, or sometimes even weeks after alcohol consumption.4

There are several ways to test alcohol in your system, including breath tests, blood tests, urine tests, hair tests, and saliva tests.

How Does the Body Remove Alcohol?

The body removes alcohol by breaking it down in the liver.2 Around 5 to 10 percent of the alcohol you drink will not find its way to your liver. Instead, you will sweat or urinate it out.5

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Does Alcohol Show Up on a Drug Test?

How long alcohol will show up on a drug test varies. It can stay in your system for quite some time. 

Here is how long alcohol can show up on a drug test of each kind:

Breath

A breathalyzer (or breath test) is one of the most popular alcohol testing devices. Alcohol testing with a breathalyzer measures the blood alcohol content (also known as the blood alcohol concentration or BAC) in your breath.4 This means that it is best used immediately after drinking alcohol.

Blood

A blood test can detect alcohol in your system for weeks after you drink it (up to 28 days). Blood alcohol tests are typically testing for phosphatidylethanol.4 They can also check for carbohydrate-deficient transferrin (CDT) or your full blood count (mean conspicuous volume - MCV). 

In some cases, blood alcohol tests are used as liver function tests (LFT). 

Urine

Alcohol may show up in a urine test for days after consumption. It can be detected in urine within less than an hour after drinking alcohol.4 

Its maximum concentration peaks after 5.5 hours. Depending on how much alcohol you consume, a urine test can still detect alcohol 24 to 80 hours after you drink. 

The ethyl glucuronide in urine can be detected on a test for up to 5 days after drinking.

Hair Saliva

A hair test for alcohol is less common. That said, testing a hair sample is the best way to test for alcohol consumption over a longer period. 

A hair sample can trace alcohol for up to six months.4 It can also detect drug use for up to a year.

Meanwhile, saliva only retains traces of alcohol for the first few hours to day after consumption.

Factors That Influence Alcohol Detection Time

There are several factors that influence alcohol detection time. How much you drink is the most obvious factor. The more alcohol you consume, the longer it will take for your body to break it down. Therefore, the longer it will stay in your system, and the longer it will be detectable.

How long alcohol stays in your system also depends on how quickly you drink alcohol. The faster you drink, the harder it is for your body to keep up and break down the alcohol.

Other factors that influence alcohol detection time depend on the type of drug and alcohol testing tool. A breathalyzer works best when used immediately or shortly after drinking alcohol.  

A hair test is helpful for long-term testing, but if your hair falls out quicker than average, this can affect the test.

What About False Positives?

You can get a false positive with a drug or alcohol testing tool (even if you do not drink alcohol). 

Many household products like mouthwash and hand sanitizer contain alcohol. If you use these products, some drug and alcohol testing tools may pick them up and mistake them for drinking alcohol. 

Can I Sober Up Faster From Alcohol?

Sobering up from alcohol takes time. Your liver metabolizes alcohol at a rate of about one standard drink per hour

So, if you have had a lot of drinks, it will take a few hours to sober up.

Some people believe that drinking coffee, taking a cold shower, forcing vomit, eating bread, and more can help them sober up faster. These are myths

The only way to get sober is by waiting.7 Plus, things like mixing caffeine with alcohol and forcing vomit can be dangerous.

That said, eating food can certainly help treat the symptoms you may be experiencing and prevent a hangover. Likewise, food slows down the rate at which your blood absorbs alcohol.3 This is why you should always eat before and/or while drinking alcohol. 

Drinking water can help dilute the alcohol that is in your system and rehydrate you. It also helps flush out the toxins. Fruit juices that contain vitamins B and C are also helpful in flushing out toxins.6

Symptoms of an Alcohol Overdose

The symptoms of alcohol overdose can be very severe and even fatal. The symptoms of alcohol overdose include, but are not limited to, the following: 9

  • Confusion
  • Stupor
  • Difficulties with coordination and motor skills
  • Trouble remaining conscious
  • Inability to wake up
  • Vomiting with or without gag reflex
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing (less than eight breaths per minute or 10 or more seconds between breaths)
  • Slow heart rate
  • Dulled responses
  • Poor reaction time
  • Low body temperature
  • Clammy skin
  • Bluish skin
  • Paleness

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of an alcohol overdose, call for emergency medical help immediately. Do not wait for it to be too late. An alcohol overdose can cause irreversible damage and even death.

Do You Have a Drinking Problem? Signs of Alcohol Misuse

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD), know that professional help is available for you. Also know that you are not alone. Unfortunately, alcohol misuse and addiction are both common.

In 2019, 25.8 percent of people ages 18 and older admitted to engaging in binge drinking behavior in the past month.1 Another 6.3 percent of people in the same age group reported engaging in heavy alcohol use in the past month.1 And another estimated 14.5 million people ages 12 and older reported suffering from alcohol use disorder. This breaks down to 9 million men and 5.5 million women.1

Some common signs that you may have a drinking problem include, but are not limited to: 1

  • Always thinking about alcohol and craving it
  • Experiencing an inability to limit or cut back on alcohol intake
  • Having mood swings when not drinking alcohol
  • Drinking alone often
  • Finding yourself lying about or making excuses for alcohol consumption
  • Allowing alcohol to stand in the way of work, school, or family responsibilities and obligations
  • Allowing alcohol to get in the way of passions and hobbies

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can take a damaging toll on your physical and mental health, as well as all aspects of your life and relationships. If you or someone you know is struggling, do not hesitate to reach out for help immediately.

AUD can be fatal if you do not get the help that you need. Professional medical advice could be lifesaving.

Treatment for Alcohol Misuse & Addiction

If you or someone you know is misusing alcohol, professional help is available to you. Both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation centers are options for someone with a drug or alcohol addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy, holistic therapy, and alcohol abuse support groups are also available.

You may also choose to explore more than one treatment option. For example, going to rehab and therapy at the same time can be helpful in treating both the physical and mental effects of alcohol abuse. 

Therapy may also help you unpack any triggers that drive you to drink. Or you may consider rehab and visiting a support group to meet other people in your shoes.

Whatever you choose, it is not safe to try to cut back on or quit alcohol alone if you have an alcohol addiction. There is no shame in reaching out for help.

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Resources

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  1. Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. Alcohol.” Drug Testing: Alcohol - Mayo Clinic Laboratories.
  3. Alcohol's Effects on the Body.” Harvard Health, 5 Dec. 2014.
  4. How Long Do Drugs and Alcohol Stay in Your System?DNA Legal.
  5. How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Urine?Orlando Recovery Center, 13 Nov. 2018.
  6. How To Sober Up Fast: 5 Methods You Can Try.” Anaheim Lighthouse, 14 Sept. 2020.
  7. Myths, Facts and Alcohol.” Myths, Facts and Alcohol | Center for Wellness Promotion | UNC Charlotte.
  8. A Positive Test without Drinking?The POST.
  9. Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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