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Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Knowing how long alcohol (ethanol) remains in your system is important for avoiding dangerous interactions with medications as well as impairments in your physical and mental performance. While alcohol is not considered a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), it is illegal to sell or serve to anyone under the age of 21 in the United States. The metabolism of alcohol has been studied in detail, but there are many individual factors that determine how long it can be detected in your body and how long it will take to be eliminated. Depending on the type of test used as well as your age, body mass, genetics, sex, and overall health, alcohol can remain detectable in your system from 10 hours to 90 days. When misused, alcohol can do as much (or even more) overall harm as many illegal drugs. People who misuse alcohol also risk developing physical and psychological dependence and alcohol use disorder.
You can start to feel the effects of alcohol in a matter of minutes. When ingested, alcohol is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into your bloodstream before it travels to the nervous system (brain and spinal cord). As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol impairs the communication of messages in your brain, altering your perceptions, emotions, movement, and senses. In small amounts, you might feel more relaxed and open or less anxious, but the more you drink, the more intoxicated you’ll begin to feel. For some, this can mean being more talkative or very friendly and others may begin to behave with anger or aggression. Other signs of alcohol intoxication include: Euphoria Loss of inhibitions Impaired walking (ataxia) Losing coordination Slurred speech Slowed reaction time Poor judgment (such as driving under the influence or engaging in unprotected sex) How Long Does Alcohol Last? The half-life of ethanol is about 4 to 5 hours, which means it takes that long to eliminate half of the alcohol ingested from the bloodstream. For most people, alcohol is absorbed into the system more rapidly than it is metabolized. For a person weighing 150 pounds, for example, one standard drink will increase their blood-alcohol concentration by about 0.02%, but the body can only remove about 0.016% per hour on average. Therefore, even if you consume only one drink per hour, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will continue to increase. If you drink more than one per hour, it rises much more rapidly. The body metabolizes alcohol by oxidizing the ethanol to acetaldehyde. The acetaldehyde is broken down into acetic acid and then to carbon dioxide and water. Most of the alcohol you consume is metabolized in the liver, but about 5% of the alcohol you drink is excreted by the body through sweat, breath, urine, feces, and saliva. Determining exactly how long alcohol is detectable in the body depends on many variables, including which kind of drug test is being used. Alcohol can be detected for a shorter time with some tests but can be visible for up to three months in others. The following is an estimated range of times, or detection windows, during which alcohol can be detected by various testing methods. Alcohol can be detected in your breath via a breathalyzer test for up to 24 hours. Alcohol can be detected in urine for three to five days via ethyl glucuronide (EtG) metabolite or 10 to 12 hours via the traditional method. Alcohol can show up in a blood test for up to 12 hours. A saliva test can be positive for alcohol from 24 to 48 hours. Like many other drugs, alcohol can be detected with a hair follicle drug test for up to 90 days. The EtG test can produce a positive test from the mere exposure to alcohol that's present in many daily household products such as cooking extract, mouth wash, cleaning products, cosmetics, and hair dye. As such, it's a less reliable test for alcohol consumption. If you take a breath or saliva test shortly after using alcohol-containing mouthwash or cough medicine, it may detect the residue of the alcohol in your mouth and create a false positive as well. The timetable for detecting alcohol in the body is also dependent upon variables such as metabolism, body mass, age, hydration level, physical activity, health conditions, and other factors, making it almost impossible to determine an exact time alcohol will show up on a drug test.
Just as family history plays a role in the development of an alcohol use disorder, how quickly the body processes and excretes alcohol also has a genetic link.
Since women tend to have proportionally more body fat and less body water than men, alcohol tends to linger in their systems longer than men. Again, the more fat you have, the longer the alcohol will stay in your body.