Learn / How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

Kayla Gill
 April 6th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Alcohol affects everyone a little differently. Some people get drunk easily, while others have a high tolerance that makes it difficult to feel its effects. A few factors impact intoxication levels and how long alcohol can actually stay in your system. 

Here’s how your body metabolizes alcohol, how long tests can detect it, and what happens in your body when you drink.

How Alcohol Affects the Body

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the central nervous system. That’s why drinking alcohol makes you feel more calm, euphoric, or even drowsy. By inhibiting your nervous system, alcohol also reduces your motor coordination, reaction time, and ability to think critically. 

Here are some of the ways alcohol affects your body in the short term:1

  • Brain: Alcohol makes it hard to focus or make decisions. When you’re intoxicated, you have lower inhibitions and are more likely to act impulsively. And with heavy drinking, you might become dizzy, lose consciousness, or have gaps in your memory the next day (often called a blackout). 
  • Mood: Drinking can change your mood, making you feel relaxed, excited, angry, or depressed. It can also increase your sexual desire.
  • Physical ability: Drinking can cause changes in your hearing, vision, and depth perception. It can also make it harder to walk or remain coordinated. Your speech may be slurred, and your reaction time slows down. 
  • Organ function: Alcohol is taxing on your liver and digestive tract. Because it affects the nervous system, heavy drinking can cause slowed breathing. You might feel nauseous after drinking, or vomit or have diarrhea. 

While the short-term effects of drinking may not last very long, that doesn’t mean they’re insignificant. Impulsive behavior, slowed reaction time, and changes in your mood can impact your life in ways that have far-reaching effects, from accidents and injuries to poor decision-making. 

How Alcohol is Measured Inside Your Body

The level of alcohol in your body is measured by blood alcohol concentration, or BAC.2 This number measures the amount of alcohol present in your bloodstream, and is expressed as the ratio of how many grams are present per 100 milliliters of your blood. 

You can also measure BAC by breath, which counts how many grams are present per 210 liters of breath. To learn more about blood alcohol concentration, try out this BAC calculator.3 

Factors That Impact the Length of Time Alcohol Stays in the Body

Alcohol affects people differently. How intoxicated one person gets and how quickly, as well as how long alcohol stays in their body, depend on a few variables.

  • Gender: “After drinking the same amount of alcohol, women tend to have higher blood alcohol levels4 than men, and the immediate effects of alcohol usually occur more quickly and last longer in women than men,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Body fat percentage: Because it holds less water than muscle, fat absorbs alcohol from your blood at a lower rate.5 This means that for 2 people who weigh the same, the person with a higher body fat percentage will have a higher BAC after drinking the same amount. 
  • Age: In general, the older you get, the longer alcohol stays in your system.5 That’s because your ability to process alcohol worsens over time. According to Harvard Health, older adults have a higher BAC than younger people after drinking the same amount.
  • How much you’ve eaten: If there’s food in your stomach, your body will absorb less alcohol. Studies show that “the consumption of foods before or together with alcohol6 reduces peak blood alcohol concentration, decreases absorption and slows metabolism. In particular, ‘high-energy’ meals may slow down alcohol metabolism and reduce subjective intoxication.”
  • Other drugs present in your system: Some medications affect how your body handles alcohol.7 This includes blood pressure medication, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatory drugs. 

How Long Does It Take to Feel the Effects of Alcohol?

Just like there’s no standard length of time that alcohol stays in your body, the time it takes to feel the effects of alcohol varies from person to person. Typically, you’ll feel the effects of drinking alcohol anywhere within 15-45 minutes,8 depending on the strength of the drink and how quickly you drink it. 

After the first 15-45 minutes, you’ll likely feel the relaxing effects of alcohol. If you continue to drink, especially at a rate faster than one drink per hour, you’ll feel progressively intoxicated. At a BAC of .02%, you might feel relaxed and euphoric.9 At a BAC of .05%, you may start to experience lowered inhibitions, impaired judgment, and loss of coordination.  

BAC of .02%, you might feel relaxed and euphoric

How Your Body Metabolizes Alcohol

When you drink, alcohol enters your stomach and then travels on to the small intestine. From there, small blood vessels carry the alcohol to your bloodstream. Roughly 20% of alcohol gets absorbed through the stomach.10 The majority of alcohol is absorbed through the small intestine, though about 10% is eliminated via your breath, sweat, and urine. 

Alcohol is primarily broken down in your liver. Using the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), your liver breaks down alcohol molecules into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is then broken down into acetate, which is then metabolized into water and carbon dioxide. At this point, your body can eliminate these molecules easily. 

How Long Does It Take the Body to Metabolize Alcohol?

A good rule of thumb is that most healthy people can metabolize about one standard drink per hour.11 Of course, factors like age, body fat percentage, and gender can greatly impact the rate at which your body processes alcohol. 

So, when does alcohol leave your system? If you consume more than one standard drink per hour, your liver has too much to process at once. The additional alcohol remains in your bloodstream and body tissues until your liver can metabolize it. This is what makes you feel drunk. 

What is One Standard Drink?

Here’s what one standard drink12 means, according to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

  • 12 ounces of normal-strength beer (4-5% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor (40% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12-13% alcohol)

Can You Speed Up the Process?

No, you cannot speed up the alcohol metabolization process.13 Once you’ve consumed alcohol, it has entered your bloodstream and can only be eliminated via the enzymes in your liver and through your sweat, breath, and urine. While some things might make you feel more alert—like drinking caffeine, water, or taking a cold shower—they will not remove alcohol from your system. 

How Long Can Tests Detect Alcohol in the Body?

Alcohol can remain in your system for up to 72 hours. How long alcohol can be detected depends on the kind of tests used: 

  • Blood tests can detect alcohol for roughly 6 hours.
  • Urine tests can detect alcohol for 12-24 hours.
  • Breath and saliva tests can detect alcohol for 12-24 hours. 
  • Hair tests can detect alcohol for up to 90 days.

When Excessive Drinking Becomes an Addiction

Alcohol is often socially acceptable, which is why it can be so hard to tell when your drinking is becoming a problem. While there is no safe level of drinking, guidelines for moderation14 are much lower than most people realize. 

If you’re concerned about your drinking and think you may need treatment to stop, search alcohol rehab centers and reach out directly to learn about available options.

Return to Resource Library

Our Promise

How Is Recovery.com Different?

We believe everyone deserves access to accurate, unbiased information about mental health and addiction. That’s why we have a comprehensive set of treatment providers and don't charge for inclusion. Any center that meets our criteria can list for free. We do not and have never accepted fees for referring someone to a particular center. Providers who advertise with us must be verified by our Research Team and we clearly mark their status as advertisers.

Our goal is to help you choose the best path for your recovery. That begins with information you can trust.