Alcohol, also known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol, is the ingredient found in beer, wine, and spirits that causes drunkenness.
Once swallowed, alcohol enters the digestive system, travels to the stomach and small intestine, and is absorbed into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, alcohol moves throughout the entire body and eventually ends up in the liver, where most alcohol metabolism occurs.
The liver processes one standard drink in one hour. When someone consumes more than this, their system becomes saturated, and the additional alcohol accumulates in the blood and other tissues until it is metabolized. If this happens too often, damage to the body's brain and tissues can develop.
On average, alcohol leaves the body at a rate of 0.015 g/100mL/hour. In other words, every hour, your blood alcohol content (BAC) level drops by 0.015. For men, this is a rate of about one standard drink per hour. However, other factors affect the intoxication level that will cause BAC to rise more quickly and fall more slowly.
Several processes or pathways metabolize ethanol alcohol. Alcohol metabolization is commonly caused by two enzymes—alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). These chemicals break down the alcohol and allow it to be eliminated from the body's systems.
ADH metabolizes alcohol to create acetaldehyde. Then, acetaldehyde is further broken down to another less active byproduct called acetate. From there, the acetate is broken down into water and carbon dioxide for easy elimination.
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Even though alcohol may not show up on a breathalyzer, it may show up on other tests after drinking. Alcohol can be detected in a urine test between 12 and 48 hours after your last drink through an ethyl glucuronide (EtG) drug test.
Your blood alcohol content (BAC) level is reduced by 0.015 per hour. For men, this is approximately one standard drink per hour.
Just because alcohol is out of your blood doesn't mean that it's no longer detectable in your system. Even hours after your blood alcohol content is at 0, alcohol can still be detected in a urine test.
There are a few factors that determine how long alcohol stays in your system:
A person's sex or gender impacts the way their body processes alcohol. Women have less dehydrogenase, which is a liver enzyme that breaks down alcohol, than men. So women tend to process alcohol more slowly than a man.
The older a person is, the longer alcohol stays in their liver. This is because older people often have a slower blood flow. An older person is also more likely to be taking medication that affects the liver. These factors mean that alcohol is processed at a slower rate, increasing the amount of alcohol absorbed into the body.
Having food in the stomach can influence the body's absorption of alcohol. Food slows the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is very rapidly absorbed. Someone who is drinking on an empty stomach could have a BAC three times higher than someone who has eaten before drinking.
Some people of Asian descent have difficulty metabolizing alcohol because they are missing a liver enzyme needed to process alcohol. These individuals can experience facial flushing, nausea, headache, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat.
A person's weight can impact how their body processes alcohol. Individuals with more body fat generally have a higher BAC because low-water fatty tissue cannot absorb alcohol as well as high-water muscle tissue can.
Drinking alcohol at a faster rate by participating in binge drinking can cause your blood alcohol concentration to increase, compared to sipping liquor or consuming at a moderate pace. Also, the more extended amount of time spent drinking, the longer it will take for the alcohol to metabolize out of the system.
A glass of wine versus grain alcohol has a different alcohol concentration, affecting how alcohol is metabolized.
The more alcohol a person drinks, the longer it takes for the alcohol to get out of their system. If a person has alcohol intoxication, any alcohol they drink will remain in the body for several hours and continue harming the brain and vital organs.
Once alcohol is in the bloodstream, it can only be eliminated by dehydrogenase, sweat, urine, and breath.
Drinking water, sleeping, or drinking caffeine does not remove alcohol from the blood, and will not speed up the process of getting alcohol out of the system.
Some effects of alcohol are immediate and last only a while. Others accumulate over time and significantly affect your physical and mental health and quality of life.
Most hangovers start once your blood alcohol level starts to return to zero. Hangovers generally only last up to 24 hours and go away on their own.
Long-term effects of alcohol consumption include alcohol withdrawal, increased body fat, liver disease, and other health complications.
In 2019, nearly 15 million people in the U.S. (12 and older) had an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
There are various treatment programs currently available for alcohol addiction, including detox, inpatient, outpatient, and partial hospitalization programs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the proper treatment will depend on the patient's individual needs and background.
If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol addiction, speak with an addiction specialist today to find the proper addiction treatment for you.
You don’t have to overcome your addiction alone. Professional guidance and support is available. Begin a life of recovery by reaching out to a specialist today.
Alcohol and Your Body, https://shop.ucsc.edu/alcohol-other-drugs/alcohol/your-body.html
“Alcohol Metabolism: An Update.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa72/aa72.htm#:~:text=The%20Chemical%20Breakdown%20of%20Alcohol,-The%20chemical%20name&text=Some%20of%20these%20intermediate%20metabolites,CHO
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2006. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47.) Appendix B. Urine Collection and Testing Procedures and Alternative Methods for Monitoring Drug Use. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64092/
“How Alcohol Affects Your Body.” Better Health Channel, www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/How-alcohol-affects-your-body
“Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized.” Factors That Affect How Alcohol Is Absorbed & Metabolized | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, Stanford University, https://alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/buzz-buzz/factors-affect-how-alcohol-absorbed
NHS Choices, NHS, www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/the-risks-of-drinking-too-much/
“What Is Alcohol?” What Is Alcohol? | Alcohol.org.nz, www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-its-effects/about-alcohol/what-is-alcohol