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How Long Can Alcohol Be Detected in Your System?

Group of teen friends clanking glasses of beer together outside  

If you drink, you may wonder how long alcohol stays in your body. Even if you do not feel drunk, alcohol may still be in your system. Your body’s responses may be slowed because of drinking. Your job or school may ask you to be tested for alcohol use, so you might wonder about the amount of time that the substance is detected in your system. Learning how alcohol impacts your body can make it easier to understand alcohol’s detection windows.

How Does the Body Process Alcohol?

Different organs in the body work together to process alcohol and get it out of your system. From the moment you take your first sip, your body gets to work to get rid of the alcohol. Because your body considers alcohol to be a poison, it tries hard to get rid of it as quickly as it can. Even before you absorb alcohol, your body attacks it with enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases to try to break it down.

How the Body Absorbs Alcohol

After alcohol enters your stomach, how fast you absorb it depends on several factors. These include:

  • If you are drinking on an empty stomach: Alcohol enters the blood faster if you have not eaten. Food, especially carbohydrates, can reduce how much it gets into your bloodstream by up to 75%.
  • How strong the alcohol is: In general, the stronger the alcohol, the more quickly your blood alcohol level may rise.
  • If the drink is carbonated: Fizzy drinks like champagne or rum and Coke enter your blood more quickly than non-fizzy drinks.
  • Your gender: For several reasons, women often get drunk more quickly than men even if they drink the same amount. Doctors think women may have less of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase to get rid of alcohol before it is absorbed. Further, because women often have more body fat than men, and alcohol does not easily get into fat, more alcohol ends up in women’s bloodstreams. Lastly, because women often have less blood volume in the first place compared to men, their blood ends up having a higher amount of alcohol.

How the Body Metabolizes Alcohol

Your body metabolizes alcohol mainly through the liver. If your liver is healthy, it can process one drink each hour. One drink is defined as:

  • 12 fluid ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1 shot of liquor (40% alcohol, or 80 proof)

How the Body Excretes Alcohol

Your liver gets rid of about 90% of the alcohol you drink. The rest comes out in your:

  • Urine
  • Sweat
  • Breath
  • Feces
  • Saliva
  • Breastmilk

Legal Alcohol Limit

The legal alcohol limit depends on different factors, like your age and your location. In all 50 states, the legal blood alcohol content, or BAC, is 0.08 if you are age 21 or older. Many states have extra penalties if your BAC is higher. For example, although the BAC limit to drive is 0.08 in Florida, if your BAC is 0.15 or higher you may have more severe charges.

If you are under the age of 21, the legal alcohol limit is zero. All 50 states have a BAC limit of 0.00 or 0.02 for underage drivers.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Breath

The amount of alcohol in your breath is the same as in your blood. Therefore, how long it stays in your breath depends on how much you have had to drink. You should wait 15 minutes after drinking before taking a breath test.

Waking Up Intoxicated

Depending on how long your body takes to get rid of the alcohol you are drinking, your BAC may be too high to drive even after going to sleep. A healthy liver can usually process one drink per hour. Therefore, depending on how much you drink and how long you wait, you may still have a high BAC when you wake up the morning after a night of drinking.

Other Alcohol Testing Methods

Many different alcohol tests exist. Doctors can test for alcohol in your urine, blood, saliva, sweat, breath, and hair. Most alcohol tests are looking for either ethanol or a chemical called EtG.

How Long Is Alcohol Detected in Urine?

Depending on the test you use, alcohol can be found in urine for up to 80 hours.

  • Ethanol urine test: Ethanol is a kind of alcohol that can be found in urine even after the rest of the alcohol you drink has left your body. Ethanol can take two hours to show up in urine after you first start drinking. It can stay in your urine for up to 12 hours. The amount of ethanol in the urine lags behind the amount of alcohol in your blood. In some cases, ethanol tests can lead to false positives, like if you:
    • Have diabetes
    • Have a yeast infection
    • Have a urinary tract infection
    • Take the urine test and your urine is then left out at room temperature
  • EtG Urine Test: Ethyl glucuronide, or EtG, is a chemical created when the liver breaks down alcohol. Tests for EtG are used when you are supposed to be completely abstinent from drinking. This chemical stays in the body much longer than ethanol. Your urine may test positive for EtG starting after eight hours and lasting up to 80 hours after drinking.

How Long Can Alcohol Be Detected in Saliva?

The EtG test can detect alcohol in saliva for up to a few hours after the last drink. The test cannot show how drunk you are, only that alcohol is present.

How Long Can Alcohol Be Detected in Blood?

Alcohol can be found in blood with the EtG test up to 36 hours after drinking. The test is most accurate between 6 and 12 hours after drinking.

How Long Is Alcohol Detectable in Hair?

The EtG test can show alcohol in your hair and nails for up to three months. The test may be positive if your mouthwash or hand sanitizer contains alcohol.

How Long is Alcohol Detectable in Breastmilk?

You should wait at least two hours after a drink before nursing or pumping. You cannot get rid of the alcohol faster by pumping and then discarding the milk.

Factors Affecting Alcohol How Long Alcohol is in the Body

Several different factors impact how long alcohol will stay in your body. These include:

  • Gender: Men often have a higher alcohol tolerance for several reasons. Men have more water in their bodies. Men make more of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach.
  • Food: Eating before drinking slows down how much alcohol is absorbed. If you eat before you drink, you can keep your blood alcohol level lower for a longer time.
  • Weight: The more you weigh, the more alcohol it takes to increase your BAC. However, there is an exception. If your weight is from fat, you may not get drunk as quickly as a slimmer person, because alcohol does not enter fat.

Addressing Addiction to Alcohol

If you are worried about an alcohol test, there may be bigger problems. It is common for people who struggle with drinking to be worried about others finding out that they drink. You are not alone in struggling with drinking and worrying about alcohol tests.

If you’re a teenager struggling with alcohol use, speak with your parents or guardians and have them contact Next Generation Village to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can help. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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