Around the world, alcoholic beverages are consumed in a variety of social settings. The occasional drink with family, friends, or colleagues is an accepted way to socialize and celebrate. More than 17 million Americans suffer from a dependence on alcoholic drinks, characterized by compulsive drinking, progressive tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when access to drinks is stopped. The truth is, alcohol is a highly addictive substance which, when abused, can lead to social, professional, legal, and financial difficulties. What makes alcohol addictive? How long does alcohol stay in the body? Read on to find out what happens when someone takes the first sip of an alcoholic drink.
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Alcohol in The System: What Does It Do?
When an alcoholic drink enters the human body, it has an impact on a number of organ systems. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcoholic drinks interfere with the functioning of the brain, liver, pancreas, and immune system. Research has shown that excessive drinking can increase the risk of some types of malignancies, such as cancers of the throat, mouth, food pipe, and liver. The effects of alcoholic drinks on the human body depend on how long alcohol stays in the system.
In the brain, alcoholic drinks disrupt behavior and mood by interfering with the communication pathways. Prolonged drinking can lead to high blood pressure and heart damage, including a weakened heart muscle and an irregular heartbeat. Heavy drinkers can damage their liver which may become inflamed or show changes such as steatosis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. The toxic substances in alcoholic beverages can lead to inflammation of the pancreas and impaired digestion.
Excessive drinking is also associated with compromised immunity and an increased likelihood of contracting infections such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. How long does alcohol stay in the system? Studies have shown that binge drinking can impair the body’s ability to fight infections even 24 hours after alcoholic drinks are consumed.
In addition to the short-term effects of alcohol, some of the long-term effects on the body include:
- Shrinking in the size of the brain with the prolonged use
- Memory blackouts
- Physical dependence leading to strained interpersonal relationships and poor performance in school or at work
- Cardiovascular disease from chronic heavy drinking
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
- Infertility with prolonged use
- Erectile dysfunction in men with alcohol abuse disorder
- Complications of diabetes
- Tingling and numbness in the hands and feet
- Changes in behavior, hallucinations, or slurred speech
- Lung infections
- Stomach distress with bloating, ulcers, and gas
- Breast cancer in women who drink excessively
- Birth defects in pregnant women who consume alcoholic beverages
- Osteoporosis (thinning of bones) in heavy drinkers
- Muscle cramps and fatigue
Metabolism of Alcoholic Drinks: How Long is Alcohol in Body System?
Some people are at greater risk than others of developing the adverse health effects associated with consuming alcoholic beverages. Not everyone who drinks develops problems. And some people drink more than others and still remain relatively healthy. This is because there is a great deal of individual variation in how alcohol is metabolized in the body.
Alcohol metabolism refers to how the body breaks down and eliminates alcoholic drinks. Therefore, how long alcohol stays in the system varies from person to person. It is determined by both genetic and environmental factors.
The two key enzymes involved in the chemical breakdown of alcohol are ADH and ALDH. Some of the byproducts of this chemical process are highly toxic and have been shown to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). After a number of steps, the body finally converts the alcoholic beverage into water and carbon dioxide, which can be easily flushed out.
The Genetics of Metabolism: How Long Does Alcohol Stay in The Body?
How long alcohol stays in body system varies. Irrespective of the number of drinks consumed, the body can only handle a certain amount of alcohol per hour. Genetic factors that affect alcohol metabolism include body mass and liver size.
Different people carry different versions of key enzymes. This means some people break down alcoholic beverages faster than others. This affects how long alcohol is in the system. Some people carry a more efficient version of the enzymes that metabolize alcoholic drinks. These people are relatively protected and tend to have a lower incidence of alcohol-related problems.
How Long Can Alcohol Be Detected in The System?
The biggest factor that determines how long alcohol stays in the system is the number of drinks consumed. The liver can only metabolize a certain number of alcoholic drinks in a given time period. Anything in excess of what can be metabolized by the liver is stored in the blood and tissues, which serve as reservoirs. When repeated too often or over a prolonged period of time, it leads to permanent organ damage.
The digestion of alcoholic beverages in the stomach and small intestine and movement into the bloodstream affects how long alcohol is in the body. People with slower absorption rates take longer to become intoxicated. Alcoholic beverages enter the liver from the bloodstream, where they are broken down for easy elimination. People with liver disease are slower to metabolize alcoholic drinks.
Note that even if a person is feeling sober or believes that they have a fast alcoholism, it is still not recommended to engage in some activities like driving after drinking alcohol. Online calculators are also a bad way to define whether one can drive or not – they are very approximate. Do not drive or engage in any potentially dangerous activity after drinking alcohol.
Staying Sober: How Long Does Alcohol Stay in the System for a Urine Test?
A healthy liver can metabolize one drink per hour. This means that if the first drink is consumed at 8 o’clock, one must wait until 9 o’clock to consume another drink. If another alcoholic beverage is ingested at 8:30, the liver will take longer to metabolize it, and the person must wait until 10 o’clock to avoid becoming intoxicated.
How long does alcohol stay in the system in the urine? There is a time lag between the first sip of a drink and a positive urine test for ethanol. It takes about 2 hours for the kidneys to filter the ethanol from the bloodstream to the urine in the bladder. Once present in the bladder, alcohol can be detected for about 1.5 hours. When blood levels are high, it is estimated that alcoholic beverages can be detected in the urine up to 12 hours after they are consumed.
BAC: How Long Does Alcohol Stay in The System for a Blood Test?
The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is the percentage of pure alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. It determines how intoxicated a person is. A BAC of 0.10 indicates that 0.1 percent of the person’s blood is alcohol.
On average, the liver can metabolize 1 ounce of an alcoholic beverage in 1 hour. This produces a BAC of about 0.015. It takes approximately 10 hours for this to clear from the bloodstream. This means, the more a person drinks, the longer the alcohol stays in the system.
- BAC 0.02: Driving may be impaired
- BAC 0.04: Feeling of relaxation
- BAC 0.08: Legal limit for safe driving in most states
- BAC 0.12: Symptoms such as vomiting
- BAC 0.40: Loss of consciousness
- BAC 0.45: Usually fatal
Even if a person is within legal limits for driving, the low BAC level can still affect the reaction time. It’s better not to drink before driving at all.
Breathalyzer: How Long Will Alcohol Stay in The System?
About nine-tenths of an alcoholic beverage consumed by a person is metabolized (broken down chemically). However, about one-tenth leaves the body through the sweat and breath. Interestingly, alcohol can be present in the hair follicles for up to 3 months.
The body can metabolize alcoholic beverages at a rate of 0.015 BAC per hour. So, if a person’s BAC is 0.08 (which is the legal limit for driving), it will take more than 5 hours to eliminate the drink entirely. A breathalyzer measures the blood alcohol concentration from a sample of the person’s breath. A breathalyzer test can be positive for up to 12 hours after an alcoholic drink is consumed.
How to get rid of alcohol in the system fast? It is a misconception that drinking black coffee can eliminate alcoholic beverages faster. To cleanse the body of alcohol, drinking lots of water, eating healthy, and exercising is recommended.