How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System? When Do You Sober Up?

Last Updated: April 19, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Each person metabolizes alcohol differently. Several factors can affect how long alcohol stays in the system and how soon a person can become sober. How a person reacts to a drink is affected by differences in metabolism and ethanol tolerance.

This article will discuss how long alcohol stays in your urine, blood, hair, and saliva. It will cover how an alcohol test works, how long alcohol lasts in the body, when drinking becomes an alcoholism problem, and how to get help.

Alcohol Detection Time Infographics.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

There are many reasons why one would care to know. The essential thing to keep in mind is that an alcohol test can be done on different specimens taken from the body. Detection windows differ across different samples. How long does alcohol stay in your urine, blood, and other testing methods?

Blood Testing

Testing for Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) is the most accurate way of measuring the substance level in the body system. Ethanol can be accurately detected in blood between 6 and 12 hours following the last drink. It can show if a person was intoxicated at an exact time, such as following a road accident or a DUI arrest.

In the US, a level of 0.08 is considered, legally, as the threshold to indicate that a person is intoxicated. When BAC is above .40, a person is considered to be at risk of dying or falling into a coma.

Breathalyzer Testing

Since a blood test involves extraction and takes longer to collect and analyze, a breath analyzer is usually used in its place. There are automatic and manual meters, and the best way to use each one is by following the manufacturer’s instructions closely.

The breathalizer will be able to detect ethanol in the system after at least 15 minutes from the time of ingestion. This device will often be equipped with bands that estimate the amount present in the body. When two bands light up, that indicates BAC ranging between .05 and .10%.

Although the legal definition of intoxicated is .08, some drivers have impaired senses and cannot drive at these levels. Thus, it is illegal for persons who have .02 levels to drive.

A medical worker holds an alcohol test.

Urine Testing

How long does alcohol stay in your urine? It can be detected in the urine between 12 hours up to 48 hours from taking the last drink.

More modern testing instruments can detect ethanol metabolites in urine for up to 80 hours since taking the last sip. Its viability for establishing BAC is also affected by how much was taken.

Hair Testing

Ethanol can be detected in a hair test up to 90 days after the last drink. However, hair tests are relatively more expensive and tedious than the other tests.

Saliva Testing

A saliva sample can be taken to check for ethanol between 24 and 48 hours after taking the last drink.

Alcohol Absorption, Transportation, and Metabolism

Alcohol half-life falls between 4 and 5 hours. People break down ethanol at different rates. The rate depends on several factors that result in individual differences in alcohol reaction, absorption, and excretion times.

How long does alcohol stay in your system? The liver processes most of the ethanol people drink. On average, every person can metabolize one standard drink per hour. An excess in the system is what causes drunkenness. High concentrations in the blood may take several hours to level off and for a person to sober up.

What is One standard drink?

Ethanol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. When people drink, ethanol enters their bodies. Different enzymes are responsible for breaking it down into by-products, the most notable ones being acetaldehyde which the body further breaks down into acetate.

Acetaldehyde is highly toxic and has been identified as a carcinogen. Studies have demonstrated this by-product to be responsible for many of the signs of intoxication. That includes loss of coordination, sleepiness, as well as the memory, and cognitive impairment.

Acetaldehyde stays intact for a relatively short time before it is further broken down. However, when it is formed and broken down, it gets transported to different parts of the body, where it causes multiple adverse impacts.

The Following Events Take Place Simultaneously:

  • Acetaldehyde can rapidly combine with proteins throughout the body.
  • The majority of the acetaldehyde is transported to the liver, where it is further simplified into acetate and prepared to exit the system.
  • When acetaldehyde reaches the brain, it combines with enzymes that regulate brain activity. Its strong affinity to dopamine is widely established. When dopamine and acetaldehyde combine, the product is salsolinol, which has been closely linked to alcohol addiction.
  • As acetaldehyde is further broken down to acetate, there is a surge of reactive oxygen species (ROS), better known as free radicals. Each of these by-products of metabolism can snatch one electron from an otherwise healthy cell. In turn, the cell becomes damaged, dies, or transforms into another free radical that attacks other cells.

The process just described is the so-called oxidative pathway. A second pathway is non-oxidative. In general, this pathway is less effective in breaking down ethanol. As a result, it accumulates in the body in its semi-degraded forms.

Some of the ethanol transformed via this pathway combines with fatty acids, resulting in the formation of fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE). This by-product has been associated with the formation of fatty liver and other diseases of the pancreas.

Factors That Affect Alcohol Detection Time

Each person will react to booze in different ways. Some people can metabolize ethanol faster, while others take longer to get alcohol out of their system. These affect how long it shows up in an alcohol test, and some factors affect these responses. Some of these factors are listed below:

Volume of Alcohol

The more important part is to consider how much drink was ingested over a given period. The higher the volume consumed per unit of time, the more likely it will stay longer in a body system.

Gender

Women are more likely to be intoxicated than men. Several factors such as body fat percentage, gastric absorption, and other genetic factors may influence these differences.

Women also have less water inside their bodies to dilute booze, so the BAC shoots up more quickly. Moreover, women produce lower levels of the enzymes used by the body to break down ethanol. Otherwise, it tends to be stored inside the body.

Body Weight and Build

These factors do not have anything to do with altering alcohol half-life that remains the same whoever is taking it. Instead, it affects the rate at which an intoxicating concentration in the body is reached.

People who weight more or who have larger builds tend to build up ethanol in their bodies. Although, it takes them longer to reach their threshold level for intoxication.

How long it takes to sober up is also affected by these factors. The greater the weight and build, the faster the concentration of ethanol in the system is diluted and subside its effects.

Medical Condition

Certain medical conditions may also affect how long alcohol lasts inside the body. In some cases, a person’s medical history may also affect the rate at which the body absorbs it.

In a study conducted among morbidly obese adults in the US, the researchers observed that it took longer for subjects who have undergone bariatric surgery or gastric bypass to become intoxicated with alcohol. Those in the control group who also had some extra weight but have not undergone gastric bypass became intoxicated sooner.

Factors That Affect Alcohol Detection Time.

Medications and Diet

Ethanol may react to certain drugs and food in the diet. In general, it should never be mixed with any form of medication. Ethanol can intensify the sedative effect of drugs such as the following:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Antihistamines
  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Opioids and opiates

It is not advisable to mix drinks with fermented foods and diuretics such as coffee and tea. Fermented food may intensify the intoxication that can be caused by drinking. Diuretics, on the other hand, dehydrate the body. Less water in the body means that a higher BAC can be reached sooner.

How Long Does it Take for Alcohol to Leave Your System?

How long does alcohol last? This is where a combination of individual and environmental factors will come into play. Getting sober is different between people, even if they both had the same kind and amount of alcohol over the same length of time.

How Fast Can You Sober Up?

The body needs time to eliminate it from the body completely. The alcohol half-life indicates how much time intoxication will endure. It’s also reasonably constant. There is nothing one can do to speed up the process but, there are ways one can support their bodies when experiencing a hangover:

  • Eat after drinking
  • Rehydrate throughout the night
  • Take a cold shower
  • Get a good rest
  • Don’t take any medication which could worsen the intoxication.

Alcohol Detoxification Help

25.8% of people 18 and older in the US reported binge drinking in the past month following a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) conducted in 2019. Alcohol-related cases referred to hospital emergency departments spiked to 47% in 2014 vs. 2006 figures.

Watch Out for Tell-Tale Signs and Symptoms When a Loved One who’s Had Too Much to Drink Might Need Professional Help:

  • Continuous vomiting
  • Weak heart rate
  • Loss of breath
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fingertips turning bluish or purplish
  • Pale skin
  • Cold body temperature
  • Seizures

Common alcohol intoxication can lead to addiction and severe health risks. Get professional treatment when substance dependence is suspected. It is the safest, most effective way of staying sober for good.

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Page Sources

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  7. Greenberg, L. (1953). Alcohol in the Body. Scientific American, 189(6), 86-91. Retrieved February 28, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24944427
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  9. SAMHSA, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Table 2.20B – Binge Alcohol Use in Past Month among Persons Aged 12 or Older, by Age Group and Demographic Characteristics: Percentages, 2018 and 2019. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29394/NSDUHD

Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: April 19th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.