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Alcohol Metabolism: How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

When you consume alcohol, there are so many variables that contribute to the way you feel and act. The type of drink, how quickly it’s consumed, and your drinking history–all play a part. Similarly, there’s a lot that could affect how alcohol stays in your system and how it’s processed in your body.

You may want to know how long alcohol stays in your system to determine when it’s safe for you to drive or when you could take medication. You might also wonder how long it will take before you feel like your usual, energetic self again after a stretch of drinking more than normal.

Regardless of the reason, keep reading to learn more about how long alcohol stays in your system. You’ll know what factors influence alcohol metabolism and how alcohol is measured in your body. You will also learn how to build self-awareness about your relationship with drinking.

How is Alcohol Intake Measured in the Body?

Alcohol intake in the body is measured through Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), or the percentage of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. BAC is not only measured with blood, ironically enough. The level of alcohol intake in the body is assessed by testing urine, blood, hair, and breath. Alcohol can be found in the breast milk of nursing mothers, too.

BAC is expressed as a percentage. For example, a BAC of 0.08% means there are 0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. With effects ranging from mild euphoria and relaxation to severe impairment of motor skills and beyond, the amount of alcohol has an impact on the person.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System image of breathalyzer

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

You may notice that some apparent effects of alcohol have worn off after your last drink; however, it doesn’t mean the alcohol has entirely left your system. Depending on how you measure it, alcohol can be found via bodily fluids for different lengths of time:

  • Breath – between 12-14 hours
  • Blood – up to 6 hours
  • Urine – between 12-14 hours
  • Saliva – between 12-14 hours
  • Hair – up to 90 days
  • Breast milk – approximately 2 hours

Drug and alcohol testing is prevalent and used for many reasons, including beginning a new job or for people involved in the legal system. Through different types of testing, the amount of alcohol in your body can be determined:

Breath Testing

Breath tests are a commonly used non-invasive method by law enforcement to estimate BAC. The individual blows into a breathalyzer device, which measures the amount of alcohol in the breath for 12-14 hours after drinking. Since alcohol is excreted in the breath, similar to concentration in the blood, the breathalyzer can provide an estimate of BAC.

Blood Testing

Blood testing is the most accurate method for measuring BAC and is often used in medical and legal settings. Blood alcohol levels must be tested within a few hours of consuming alcohol to be accurate, as levels begin to decline as soon as six hours following the last drink.

Urine Testing

Urine testing or analysis, referred to as a “UA,” is a method that measures the amount of alcohol or its metabolites found in the urine. While urine tests can indicate recent alcohol consumption, it is less precise than blood tests for measuring BAC.

Saliva Testing

Saliva tests can also detect alcohol presence and estimate BAC. These are less common but provide a non-invasive alternative to blood tests when needed or blood testing cannot be conducted.

Hair Testing

Hair testing can accurately depict long-term alcohol consumption by measuring the presence of ethyl glucuronide (EtG) and other alcohol markers in the hair. This method is used for detecting chronic alcohol use rather than current intoxication and can trace alcohol use back approximately 90 days.

Breast Milk Testing

While not typically utilized in medical or legal settings, breast milk testing can be done for mothers who want to know when they can safely resume nursing their baby or pump milk for later use. Breast milk can be measured at home with specialized test strips.

Factors that Affect Alcohol Metabolism Rates

Several factors influence how quickly alcohol is absorbed and metabolized before it’s excreted from the body:

  • Body weight and composition
  • Gender
  • Rate of consumption
  • Food Intake
  • Metabolic rate
  • Alcohol tolerance

What is Considered a Drink?

Alcohol intake is measured in “standard drinks” or “units,” which provide a consistent way to measure the amount of pure alcohol consumed. Regardless of the type of alcohol someone drinks, each drink has different strengths. A standard drink typically contains about 14 grams (0.6 ounces) of pure alcohol, but the actual volume of a drink varies depending on the beverage.

  • Beer – Usually 12 ounces of beer with about 5% alcohol by volume (ABV)
  • Wine – Typically 5 ounces of wine with about 12% ABV
  • Spirits and hard liquor – Generally 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (e.g., whiskey, vodka) with about 40% ABV

In other words, the stronger the alcohol content in a beverage, the less needed to create the same effects.

How Long Does it Take for Alcohol to Kick In?

The time it takes for alcohol to “kick in” or start affecting a person can vary based on several factors. Generally, people begin to feel the effects of alcohol within minutes of consumption, but the feelings vary depending on the person’s experience with drinking and self-awareness.

Typical Alcohol Timeline

  • Immediate Effects – Alcohol starts to be absorbed into the bloodstream almost immediately upon consumption. Within 5-10 minutes, you begin to feel the initial effects, such as relaxation or a mild buzz.
  • Peak Effects – The effects of alcohol typically peak within 30-60 minutes after consumption. Your BAC is rising to its highest point, and you feel the most significant effects, such as euphoria, lowered inhibitions, and impaired judgment.

How Do You Know Alcohol is Affecting You?

Understanding how alcohol affects you at different stages can help you become more self-aware of your drinking. The higher your BAC, the more impaired you will feel. Various popular terms describe signs and symptoms associated with varying levels of alcohol intoxication:


Being “buzzed” is typically the first stage of alcohol intoxication and is characterized by mild effects, such as a slightly warm feeling and relaxation. You will notice a slight lowering of inhibitions and increased ease in being social. You may also feel mildly impaired in judgment and concentration.


Being “tipsy” is a step beyond being buzzed. The warm sensation becomes more noticeable, and euphoria is more apparent. Your inhibitions are lowered even more, unlike your confidence. You will experience more noticeable impairment in coordination and slight trouble with balance and fine motor skills.


Being “drunk” indicates a higher level of intoxication with more pronounced effects. Your skin begins to flush, and your speech is likely slurred. Vision is getting fuzzy, and focusing is a struggle at this stage. Your short-term memory is not great, and neither is your judgment. Other people will be able to tell you’re intoxicated when you are drunk due to your poor coordination and balance.

Very Drunk or Intoxicated

At this stage, the effects of alcohol are pretty severe and apparent, and nausea and vomiting are most likely to occur. Blackouts might also happen, where your memory lapses and your safety is most at risk. You might also feel confused and emotionally reactive. Losing balance and falling are signs of severe intoxication. If you find yourself getting very drunk (intoxicated) regularly, you may have a problem with alcohol.

Getting Help for Alcohol Use

Drinking alcohol can be done responsibly and is viewed as a fun social activity. However, for many people, drinking can spiral out of control. Nearly 3 million adults in the U.S. struggle with alcoholism, and numbers are climbing.

Knowing your limits while consuming alcohol can help keep you safe. If you feel like alcohol plays a role in your life that makes you uncomfortable or you are drinking more than you would like, you’re not alone. Consider reaching out for help today.

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Kelsey Jones vrc az

Medically Reviewed by Kelsey Jones, MS, LPC

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