How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System? – On average, a healthy liver processes around 10 grams of ethyl alcohol, or about one standard drink per hour.* The presence of alcohol is detectable in urine for up to 80 hours after consumption. Alcohol is detectable on the breath and in saliva for around 24 hours after the last drink. Alcohol use is detectable in hair follicles for up to 3 months.
Immediately after consuming a drink, roughly 20% of the alcohol travels into the blood vessels it comes in contact with on the way to the stomach, and then moves straight to the brain. The remaining 80% is moved into the small intestine, where it is then absorbed into the bloodstream.
Moreover, alcohol enters the bloodstream relatively quickly and is then metabolized out of the blood more slowly by the liver. The point at which blood alcohol content (BAC) is highest before it is metabolized is the peak blood alcohol concentration. The length of this peak depends on the strength and amount of the consumed alcohol.
Although the rate at which one becomes intoxicated depends on the person, alcohol is metabolized at the same rate for everyone, assuming they have a healthy liver. Other factors that affect the rate of intoxication include the following:
- Body fat content
- Rate of alcohol consumption
- Amount of food in stomach and intestines
- Fat content of food in stomach and intestines
- Other chemicals present in the body, such as those from medications
*A standard alcoholic drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or one ounce of liquor.
Testing for Alcohol
Alcohol tests are used for a variety of reasons, such as field sobriety testing, pre-employment screening, routing workplace testing, and probate testing.
A urine test for alcohol can only reveal whether it is present, but not a person’s BAC. Current technology allows law enforcement to detect the presence of alcohol in the urine of a chronic drinker for up to 80 hours.
Blood testing for alcohol is the most reliable and precise method available. Unlike urine tests, a blood-based test can reveal a person’s exact BAC at the time the test is administered.
However, the most common test for alcohol is a breath test, known as a breathalyzer. While not as reliable or accurate as a blood test, breath tests not only determine whether someone has been drinking but can also estimate their BAC. The breathalyzer is a standard field sobriety test for police in the U.S. since it is much less invasive than a urine or blood test and because results are immediate.
You aren’t an alcoholic just because you drink. That said, if alcohol consumption consistently undermines everyday responsibilities, this indicates an alcohol use disorder (AUD) – also commonly referred to as alcoholism or being an alcoholic
A diagnosis of AUD, although it requires the presence of specific criteria, can cover a wide variety of cases, from someone who spends more on alcohol than they can afford to someone who regularly blacks out and commits crimes. The hallmark of alcohol addiction is the inability to quit drinking even when it causes problems.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions, leading a drinker to act in ways they might otherwise reconsider. Because drinking is socially acceptable, if not encouraged, in many cultures alcohol addiction is an ever-present problem. Statistics regularly reveal the staggering correlation between alcohol consumption and crime rates.
Effects of Alcohol
The effects of alcohol often start out as pleasurable, which is why people enjoy drinking. Nevertheless, there are many adverse short- and long-term side effects and very few, if any, positive long-term effects of alcohol consumption. Alcohol’s impact on the body is relative to BAC.
Short-term effects include the following:
At 0.033-0.12% BAC:
- Improved mood
- Reduced anxiety
- Increased self-confidence
- Reduced attention span
- Flushed face
- Reduced motor coordination
- Impaired judgment
At 0.09-0.25% BAC:
- Reduced comprehension
- Reduced reaction speed
- Memory loss
- Loss of balance and equilibrium
- Blurred vision
- Sensory impairment
At 0.25-0.40% BAC:
- Staggered movement
- Moderate respiratory depression
- Urinary incontinence
- Slow heart rate
- Severely reduced consciousness or unconsciousness
At 0.35-0.80% BAC:
- Absent pupillary light reflex
- Severe respiratory depression
- Dangerously slow heart rate
Long-term effects of alcohol abuse include the following:
- Disrupted brain development
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
- Cognitive impairment
- Diminished capacity for abstract reasoning
- Liver damage and cirrhosis
- Destruction of brain cells
- Memory loss
- Poor attention span
- Gastrointestinal ulcers
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Reduced sperm count and sperm production
- Stomach and esophageal cancer
Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal
The more one consumes alcohol, the higher their tolerance becomes. Essentially, this occurs because when alcohol consumption becomes routine, the body compensates by dedicating more enzymes to metabolize it more efficiently.
In essence, the body treats alcohol as a poison. The liver cleans the blood of alcohol at a constant rate. Intoxication occurs when alcohol is consumed at a rate higher than the liver can process it. An extreme level of intoxication is known as alcohol poisoning, which happens when a person drinks an excessive amount of alcohol in a relatively short period.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include the following:
- Loss of coordination
- Severely depressed breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
- Reduced body temperature (hypothermia)
- Paleness or bluing of the skin
- Stupor or unresponsiveness
- Loss of consciousness or passing out
Tolerance reduces an individual’s risk of alcohol poisoning. While not always concurrent with alcohol dependence, a high tolerance is a telling sign of alcohol addiction.
Alcohol dependence occurs when the brain begins to require alcohol to function normally, and withdrawal symptoms arise then he or she tries to quit or drastically cut back.
Withdrawals are symptoms experienced by a person who becomes dependent on alcohol and then ceases consumption. Because of the nature of alcohol dependence, withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, and in very extreme cases, result in death.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Shakiness and tremors
- Irritability and mood swings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Racing heart or palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Altered mental function
- Extreme disorientation
- Delirium tremens
- Heart attack or stroke
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a very serious, life-threatening condition that adversely affects the user as well as those close to him or her.
Anyone who continues to engage in alcohol abuse, especially after attempts to quit or cut back should seek help and consider participating in a comprehensive addiction treatment program.
Because alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be fatal in some cases, anyone who quits drinking abruptly should do so under medical supervision only. A clinical detox benefits the patient because they can be monitored 24/7 for complications, administered medications to ease withdrawal symptoms, and effectively prevented from release.
After detox, patients should undergo inpatient rehab or intensive outpatient treatment. Both formats include evidence-based approaches such as behavioral therapy and counseling. Inpatients reside around-the-clock for a period of 30 days or longer, while outpatients live outside of the center but visit several times per week to engage in therapy sessions.
At the completion of treatment, our center offers aftercare planning services and alumni activities for ongoing support and recovery maintenance.