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How Your Body Processes Alcohol & Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

Alcohol leaves the body gradually. For most people, it takes about an hour for their body to eliminate one drink. People who consume higher quantities of alcohol tend to eliminate alcohol faster.

How do we know when alcohol is gone from the body?

In most cases, the only way to prove that alcohol is no longer in a person’s system is through a chemical test. Alcohol metabolites in blood, urine, saliva, sweat, hair, and breath remain in the body for up to 80 hours after your last drink, depending on how much was consumed and the test administered. 

How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your System (Urine, Saliva, Blood & Hair)?

To understand how long alcohol stays in your system, you need to consider how long before a test will no longer detect the presence of alcohol. The average drug testing or alcohol test shows alcohol's presence approximately two to 24 hours after consuming a drink. But different urine tests and other types of tests have additional detection capabilities. For example:

Urine

Alcohol stays in the urine for 12 to 72 hours, depending on how recently and how much you drank.

Saliva

Alcohol stays in your saliva for two to 48 hours.

Blood

Alcohol stays in your blood for up to 12 hours.

Hair

Alcohol stays in your hair for up to 90 days.

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Factors That Affect How Long Alcohol Stays in Your System

Drinking more means it takes longer for alcohol to process through your body. The approximate blood alcohol content (BAC) of an average person of 150-pounds who consumes a standard drink (such as a 12-ounce beer or glass of wine) will be between 0.02 and 0.03.

But this is just an estimate. Many factors play a role in how the body processes alcohol, including a person’s biological gender, body fat, the type of alcohol consumed, whether or not drinking occurred on an empty stomach, and the size of the person’s liver. Keep in mind that eating before drinking affects how quickly you’ll get drunk and whether you will feel sick after drinking. However, if you continue to consume alcohol, the food you ate beforehand eventually becomes a moot point.

Alcohol is removed from the body through sweat, urine, and respiration. And until the body completely breaks down alcohol, it is detectable in sweat, urine, and the breath.

How Long Do Alcohol's Effects Last?

On average, the body purges alcohol at a rate of about 0.015 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood each hour. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, women tend to eliminate alcohol from the bloodstream faster than men.

So, to get a better idea of how fast your body eliminates alcohol based on this rate, it takes about five and a half hours to metabolize the alcohol in your system if your BAC is 0.08. People who begin with blood alcohol levels of 0.20 will take between 12 and 14 hours to process the alcohol in your system.

Assuming you weigh 160-pounds, the following estimates help you determine how long it will take to sober up and for the effects of alcohol to wear off after drinking:

  • 0.04 (2 drinks) 2.5 hours
  • 0.08 (4 drinks) 5 hours (legally considered drunk driving because of how it affects reaction time behind the wheel)
  • 0.10 (5 drinks) 6.25 hours
  • 0.16 (8 drinks) 10 hours
  • 0.20 (10 drinks) 12.5 hours

Alcohol poisoning (intoxication) occurs at a rate of 0.25 or more.

Most heavy drinkers or those who engage in binge drinking, such as those with alcohol use disorder (AUD), tend to process alcohol faster than moderate, occasional, and first-time drinkers. Heavy drinking and alcohol addiction tend to change alcohol metabolism and give the appearance that a heavy drinker has a higher tolerance for handling alcohol.

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Alcohol Addiction Treatment Options/Resources

Several treatment options are available for anyone who has tried to stop drinking and failed or who believes they drink too much. For example:

  • Inpatient treatment center
  • Outpatient treatment program
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy

In addition to addiction treatment and support, programs offer assistance with detox, alcohol withdrawal, behavioral health, mental health, and other substance abuse aspects. 

Common Questions and Answers

Can you pass an alcohol urine test in 48 hours?

It depends on how much alcohol you consumed and how fast your body eliminates alcohol, which varies from person to person. You have a good shot at passing the test, but there are no guarantees. If you are concerned about passing a test, your best bet is to detox and stop drinking at least 80 hours before the test.

How do you flush alcohol out of your system?

Your body processes alcohol at its own rate, and there isn’t a lot you can do to speed up the process of how long alcohol stays in your system. For some people, exercising and drinking a lot of water seems to hasten the process a bit. However, there is no scientific evidence that anything works aside from drinking water.

If you are scheduled to take a test and you have 24 hours or more, a sweat-inducing workout won’t hurt, but drinking plenty of water is the only thing that might help.

Does drinking water reduce EtG?

Yes. Studies have shown that drinking water drastically reduces EtG concentration in urine. Drinking water is the only thing that can actually help you “sober up” after drinking. Alcohol dehydrates the body and water hydrates the body.

Eating after you’ve consumed alcohol, vomiting, sweating, drinking coffee, or showering are only myths and do nothing to eliminate alcohol from your system. These things might help you feel better but will not affect any alcohol test results. They only create an illusion of sobriety.

Are there ways to sober up fast from alcohol?

Not really. Aside from consuming a lot of water, there is very little you can do to change the amount of alcohol in your system. Stopping drinking and allowing time to pass is the only true way to sober up.

How long can one standard drink show up on an EtG test?

An EtG test measures the amount of Ethyl Glucuronide (EtG) in your system. EtG is a metabolite formed within a few minutes after drinking alcohol. It begins forming as soon as you start drinking.

EtG tests can detect recent alcohol consumption, even if there is no measurable ethanol in your system. If there is EtG in your urine, there’s a good chance you consumed alcohol directly or indirectly in the last few days. Even small amounts of alcohol can be detected in an EtG test.

It usually takes about two hours for EtG to show up in urine. It remains present for up to 80 hours. EtG can also be detected in a person’s hair or nails.

EtG tests are more sensitive than other alcohol tests. Some of the advantages of this type of test include detecting:

  • Recent alcohol consumption
  • Alcohol consumption for a more extended period than other tests, including a breathalyzer or standard urine test
  • Small amounts of alcohol and enforcing zero-tolerance restrictions

Additionally, EtG tests effectively monitor patients in treatment programs because they detect a risk of relapse. These tests serve as a warning system because they are sensitive to small amounts of alcohol for up to three to five days after consumption. EtG can also be used in combination with other tests to get the most comprehensive results. 

There are some limitations to EtG tests. They can produce a positive test from the mere exposure to alcohol that's present in many daily use products.

Resources

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“Understanding Blood Alcohol Content (BAC):” College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, https://www.csbsju.edu/chp/health-promotion/alcohol-guide/understanding-blood-alcohol-content-(bac).

Wojcik, M. H., and J. S. Hawthorne. “Sensitivity of Commercial Ethyl Glucuronide (ETG) Testing in Screening for Alcohol Abstinence.” Alcohol and Alcoholism, vol. 42, no. 4, 21 May 2007, pp. 317–320, 10.1093/alcalc/agm014. https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/42/4/317/160166.

Greenberg, Leon A. “Alcohol in the Body.” Scientific American, vol. 189, no. 6, 1953, pp. 86–91., www.jstor.org/stable/24944427.

Danel, Thierry, et al. “The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on the Circadian Control of Human Core Body Temperature Is Time Dependent.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 1 July 2001, journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajpregu.2001.281.1.R52.

Paton, Alex. “Alcohol's Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jan. 2005, www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body.

Zakhari, Samir. “Overview: how is alcohol metabolized by the body?.” Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol. 29,4 (2006): 245-54. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6527027/

Nieschalk, M., Ortmann, C., West, A. et al. Effects of alcohol on body-sway patterns in human subjects. Int J Leg Med 112, 253–260 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1007/s004140050245 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s004140050245

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