If you’ve had a drink or two, you might be wondering just how long that alcohol will stay in your system.
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In urine, alcohol can be detected from 12 to 130 hours if a person has been drinking excessively. Phosphatidylethanol (PEth), a biomarker that reflects alcohol intake, can be detected up to 14 days in urine. Alcohol can be detected from 12 to 24 hours in the breath, as well as in saliva. And when tested in the hair, especially at the root, alcohol can be detected up to 90 days after a person has stopped drinking.
So how fast can the body break down alcohol and is it possible to “speed things up?” Hepatologist Jamile Wakim-Fleming, MD, explains how your body gets rid of alcohol and gives us a better idea of what affects this process.
The liver gets most of the attention when it comes to alcohol metabolism. But it’s not the only gear in the machine.
“When you have a drink, its first stop is the stomach,” explains Dr. Wakim-Fleming. “Some people have stomach enzymes that break down alcohol. These enzymes help divert some of the alcohol from going into your bloodstream.”
But not everyone has these enzymes, known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). “Studies have shown that women tend to have lower levels of ADH than men,” says Dr. Wakim-Fleming. “And people who drink regularly have lower ADH levels than people who rarely or never drink.”
If you don’t have enough ADH or ALDH, your stomach will send the alcohol directly to the small intestine. From there, it hits your bloodstream and your brain, and you start feeling its effects.
The liver does the heavy lifting when it comes to processing alcohol. After the alcohol passes through your stomach, small intestine and bloodstream, your liver starts its cleanup. It removes about 90% of the alcohol from your blood. The rest comes out through your kidneys, lungs and skin.
“Alcohol metabolism time depends on the volume and strength of the drink,” says Dr. Wakim-Fleming. “The more you drink, the more your body has to process. And the concentration matters. Two ounces of spirits contain much more alcohol than two ounces of wine.”
One standard drink is about 14 grams of ethanol (alcohol), the amount found in:
After you start drinking, alcohol takes around 60 to 90 minutes to reach peak levels in the blood. Then, the body begins breaking it down.
The half-life of alcohol is four to five hours. A half-life is how long it takes for your body to get rid of half of it. But you need about five half-lives to get rid of alcohol completely. So, it takes about 25 hours for your body to clear all the alcohol.
There is no set timeframe for how long alcohol stays in your system. The speed of elimination depends on your:
When it comes to “passing” an alcohol test, there’s no guarantee. More sensitive or higher quality tests can pick up smaller amounts of alcohol. And because everyone metabolizes alcohol at their own rate, some people will take longer to clear it than others.
In general, this is the maximum amount of time tests can detect alcohol after you consume it:
Eating food and drinking coffee changes how your body uses alcohol. But they’re not miracle cures to help you sober up.
Food changes how your body processes alcohol but not how fast it can do it. “When alcohol hits an empty stomach, it will move right through, quickly heading to the small intestine and your bloodstream,” says Dr. Wakim-Fleming. “You’ll feel more intoxicated and may notice stronger toxic effects, such as an upset stomach and a hangover.”
On the flip side, food makes the alcohol hang out in the stomach for a while. “Your stomach gets time to break down some of the alcohol before it moves into the small intestine,” she continues. “You can avoid some of alcohol’s toxic effects, but it won’t change how soon you can pass an alcohol test.”
Alcohol is a depressant drug, so it makes you feel drowsy. Caffeine is a stimulant, which can perk you up and reverse some of alcohol’s effects.
Despite this opposite relationship, caffeine and alcohol don’t mix. “Mixing coffee or an energy drink with alcohol might make you feel less intoxicated,” says Dr. Wakim-Fleming. “But you can lose track of how much you’ve had to drink. And it won’t clear alcohol from your system any faster.”
If you think you need help to stop drinking, treatment is available. Talk with your doctor or start with one of these resources: