How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?

Many people assume that they’re fine after one or two drinks just because they don’t feel the effects of the alcohol anymore. But there’s a difference between feeling relatively sober and the amount of time alcohol actually stays in your system. This is important when it comes to safely operating a motor vehicle as well as avoiding potentially risky interactions with medications.

How Alcohol Works

Alcohol’s potency is measured by the percentage of alcohol found in a beverage by volume, known as the proof. This figure, which is listed on bottles of liquor sold commercially, is another way of communicating the beverage’s alcohol concentration. Drinks with a higher concentration of alcohol, or a higher proof, are more potent.

When a person drinks alcohol, the body has to chemically break it down in a series of successive steps. First, alcohol must be converted into a toxic substance by enzymes in the body. This substance must be further broken down into carbon dioxide and water that is eliminated through urine. Drinking beverages with a high proof could increase one’s exposure to the toxic substance derived from alcohol, which has been linked to cancer.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is how the presence of alcohol is measured in the body. It is a measure of the percentage of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream at any given time. For instance, if a person has a BAC of 0.09%, that means their blood contains 0.09% alcohol, which is above the legal limit in the United States. BAC can also be measured using breath or urine tests.

Loss of consciousness or alcohol poisoning may occur when BAC is above 0.25%. A BAC above 0.40% would lead to coma or death in most people. When alcohol is present at such high levels, the body loses the ability to metabolize it quickly enough, leading to a buildup of toxicity. This would result in increasingly impaired motor coordination, blurred vision, loss of balance, nausea and vomiting, and mental confusion.

Factors That Influence Alcohol Processing

The way that alcohol is processed depends on many factors unique to the individual. Some combination of factors might result in alcohol getting eliminated faster and other factors might result in alcohol taking more time to process.


Due to more efficient metabolism, younger people tend to process alcohol faster than older people.


Though weight doesn’t directly affect alcohol processing speed, it does influence BAC and intoxication. An individual who weighs less will generally feel intoxicated faster than a person who is heavier, even when consuming the same amount of alcohol.


Men are generally believed to process alcohol faster than women, though the underlying reasons are unclear due to high individual differences in body composition, metabolic rate, and genetic factors.


Medication can greatly impact the way alcohol is processed in the body, making it dangerous to mix the two. It’s advised to consult with a doctor to ensure that alcohol use is safe when taking prescription drugs.

Food Consumption

The amount of food consumed and the time since consumption can greatly impact how alcohol is processed. When drinking on an empty stomach, the body absorbs alcohol faster, leading to a sharper increase in the BAC.

Type and strength of alcohol

The strength of alcohol consumed is another factor that affects intoxication assuming equal drinking time. For instance, drinking two beers over the course of an hour will result in a lower BAC than drinking two cocktails made with 80 proof liquor in the same amount of time.

What Is A Standard Drink?

In the United States, a standard drink is defined as a beverage that contains 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. This varies according to the drink. For instance, a 12-ounce beer is considered a standard drink because its alcohol content is only 5%. However, a shot of liquor (only 1.5 ounces) would also be considered a standard drink because it contains 40% alcohol. Drinking 12 ounces of a beer or wine with an alcohol content of 8% would be considered 1.5 standard drinks.

Knowing the difference between a standard drink when it comes to something like wine compared to a much stronger spirit like grain alcohol can prevent severe intoxication. It’s also important to note that in mixed drinks, especially cocktails with other types of alcohol, it’s difficult to ascertain the amount of alcohol present.

How Long Do Different Types of Alcohol Stay in the System?

Regardless of the type of alcohol, it takes approximately an hour to process about 8 grams of pure alcohol. Consuming more than one drink per hour will quickly increase BAC and result in intoxication. The length of time alcohol can be detected in the system varies depending on factors such as age, weight, gender, and food consumption.
How Does the Liver Help to Process Alcohol?
The majority of the work needed to break down alcohol in the body is done in the liver. Alcohol is first broken down by molecules called alcohol dehydrogenase into a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde can build up in the body when a person drinks large quantities of alcohol. This is why people who suffer from alcoholism often do damage to their liver.
How Do Drugs Alter the Metabolism of Alcohol?

Even medications taken safely as prescribed can affect major systems in the body that change the way alcohol is absorbed. For instance, a medication that blocks absorption in the stomach can increase the amount of alcohol the liver must process, leading to greater intoxication. Medications that affect the functioning of the liver can lead to ineffective metabolism of alcohol, which results in higher levels of the substance being released into the bloodstream.

Alcohol can also affect the way drugs are metabolized, lowering their effectiveness if consumed while drinking.

How Long Does It Take to Get BAC Below 0.08?

Since the amount of alcohol it takes for BAC to get up to 0.08 varies according to many individual factors, the amount of time it takes to get back to below 0.08 can also vary accordingly. In general, it takes about an hour to eliminate one drink. When drinking 3-4 drinks in an hour, the amount of time it takes to sober up will still take roughly 3-4 hours.

The difference between what constitutes one drink varies depending on what you’re drinking. A 12-ounce beer might be equivalent to a 5-ounce wine because of the difference in alcohol content.

Alcohol and the Body FAQs

Getting Help for Alcoholism
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Alcoholism is one of the most common addiction problems in the United States. In 2019, 139.7 million individuals aged 12 or older reported using alcohol, with over 16 million reporting heavy alcohol use. The widespread use of alcohol makes it hard to quit and avoid in social situations, making treatment difficult.

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