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Alcohol: Speed of Effects and Length of Detection

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How Long Does Alcohol Stay In Your System?

The amount of time alcohol might stay in your body depends on the liver’s ability to process it. A constant rate of alcohol elimination is about one standard drink per hour.1 However, a range of factors can have an influence on how long each person will feel the effects of alcohol, including:1

  • Age.
  • Biological sex.
  • Genetics.
  • Overall health.
  • Height and weight.
  • Body fat.
  • Hydration.
  • Use of medications or other drugs.
  • Drinking on an empty stomach.  

What’s the Process of Alcohol Metabolism? 

Alcohol metabolism time is short. It passes through the digestive system and most of it gets absorbed straight into the bloodstream, through the stomach and small intestines. The bloodstream then carries it through the body and to the brain. Alcohol digestion and absorption can be slowed down by the presence of food in the stomach.2

More than 90% of alcohol is eliminated by the liver, where it’s exposed to enzymes and metabolized, while about 2-5% get excreted unchanged through urine, sweat, or breath. If you consume alcohol on an empty stomach, its concentration in the blood will peak about one hour after consumption (depending on the amount) and then steadily decline during the next four hours.3

Alcohol is distributed through the water in the body, so most tissues (heart, brain, and muscles) get exposed to the same concentration of alcohol as blood. The exposure is greater only in the liver since it receives blood directly from the stomach and small bowel. Due to fat’s poor solubility, very small amounts of alcohol enter fat. That’s why alcohol concentrations are higher in women, who generally have a greater percentage of body fat and a smaller blood volume than men.3

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in the Body?

The body metabolizes alcohol pretty fast. Alcohol burn-off rate is about .016 BAC per hour or about one average drink per hour. The detection period for alcohol itself is only a few hours after the last drink since the half-life of alcohol is about 1–2 hours.4

However, the alcohol metabolism rate can vary considerably depending on the person’s gender, age, physical condition (especially the condition of the liver), and weight.5

For example, alcohol or, more commonly, its metabolites can stay in your:5

  • Hair for up to 90 days (metabolites of ethanol are used as markers of alcohol use since ethanol itself doesn’t bind to hair).
  • Blood for up to 12 hours.
  • Saliva for 2 to 12 hours.
  • Urine for 12 to 72 hours (depending on how recently and how much alcohol was consumed).

What Is Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)?

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) is the percent of alcohol in someone’s bloodstream. BAC is calculated by measuring milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood and is usually expressed as a decimal number.6

BAC scale can serve as an indicator of how dangerous different levels of alcohol intoxication can be:6

  •  0.00-0.05%Mild impairment: mild speech, attention, memory, balance, coordination impairments; relaxation and sleepiness.
  • 0.06-0.15%Increased impairment: increasing intoxication, risk of aggression, significantly impaired driving skills, risk of injury, moderate memory impairments.
  • 0.16-0.30%Severe impairment: significant impairment of speech, coordination, balance, memory and attention, driving skills; judgment and decision making dangerously impaired; vomiting, blackouts.
  • 0.31-0.45%Life-threatening: loss of consciousness, the risk of experiencing alcohol overdose, suppression of vital life functions, and risk of death. 

What Is a Standard Drink?

In the United States, one standard drink contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, commonly found in:7

  • 12 oz. regular beer (4.5-6% alcohol).
  • 5 oz. glass of wine (12% alcohol).
  • 1.5 oz. alcohol shot of hard liquor (such as rum, tequila, or vodka) usually contains about 40% of alcohol, while whiskey ranges from 40% to 50% of alcohol by volume, and gin 35% to 55%.

Alcohol Detection in the Body – Urine Test vs. Blood Test 

The window of detection for alcohol itself is about 7–12 hours. Approximately 90–95% of alcohol is oxidized in the liver before elimination in the urine, and only 1–2% of ingested alcohol is excreted unchanged in urine.5

Since many substances (including alcohol) are cleared from the blood relatively fast, testing blood or its components has short detection periods. The same goes for breath and saliva testing since alcohol passes quickly through them and gets eliminated.5

However, alcohol metabolites can remain in the body for up to 80 hours after the last drink, depending on how much of it was consumed and the type of testing used to detect alcohol in the system. One of the alcohol metabolites is EtG, or ethyl glucuronide, a byproduct of alcohol breakdown in the liver. EtG can be detected with alcohol urine test much longer than alcohol in the blood or breath – up to 48 hours, and even up to 80 hours in case of heavy drinking.

Types of Alcohol Tests

There are multiple options for alcohol testing:5

  • Hair testing is not appropriate for alcohol detection since alcohol doesn’t incorporate into the hair. However, alcohol metabolites, like ethyl glucuronide and ethyl sulfate, can be used as markers of alcohol use for up to 3 months after the last drink.
  • Urine tests. Alcohol detection in urine can indicate only recent ingestion. These tests can’t identify long-term abuse. Urine is most likely to contain alcohol’s metabolites.
  • Blood test detection time is quite short for alcohol. Depending on the amount and other relevant factors, these tests are accurate for about 6-12 hours after the last drink. Generally, the alcohol level in blood has a shorter detection period than alcohol in urine.
  • Saliva or oral fluid tests have a short window of detection. Same-day use can be detected in some cases, and detected concentrations are generally lower.
  • Breath testing devices are used for very recent alcohol use. Alcohol will usually be detectable in the breath as long as it’s present in the blood. The detection time for ethyl alcohol itself is a few hours after alcohol use.

How Can I Get Rid of Alcohol From My System?

Moderate alcohol consumption (usually defined as one drink a day for women and two for men) doesn’t normally lead to harmful effects since this amount of alcohol is metabolized quite fast.8 However, drinking large amounts of alcohol and binge drinking can lead to an increased short-term risk of accidents and some long-term health risks.10

Alcohol is water-soluble, so drinking enough water can lower its concentration in the blood and other body tissues. Some of it will get excreted through urine and sweat. However, in the case of alcohol dependence, getting it out of the system through detoxification is only the first step. The detoxification process should be supervised by SUD treatment professionals to ensure its safety and provide psychological and medical care.11, 12 

What Happens When You Stop Drinking Cold Turkey?

Quitting alcohol use suddenly or ‘cold turkey’ can cause withdrawal symptoms in a lot of cases. More than 50% of people with a history of alcohol abuse can exhibit alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they stop or decrease their alcohol use.13

Withdrawal symptoms usually occur within 48 hours (sometimes within the first 6 hours) in those with chronic abuse and may last for up to 5 days. Some of them are simply unpleasant, like:14

  • Restlessness.
  • Insomnia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Nausea.

About 10% of patients experience more severe withdrawal symptoms such as:14

  • Tremor.
  • Fast breathing.
  • Excessive sweating.

Additionally, some symptoms can be very harmful, such as depression, or life-threatening, like delirium tremens. Delirium tremens is the most serious form of alcohol withdrawal, involving disorientation, hallucinations, and confusion.13

That’s why it’s strongly recommended to seek out immediate help, particularly in case of an acute crisis, instead of trying to quit cold turkey on your own.

 How to Get Help for Alcohol Addiction?  

If your alcohol abuse has become unmanageable and you feel like you need a professional evaluation to determine whether an addiction is present, and to what extent, you might want to start looking into highly regarded, licensed addiction treatment providers.

One of the first steps might include calling a helpline and seeking information about different payment options. For instance, American Addiction Centers can verify your insurance coverage and offer tailored alcohol addiction programs, including: 

AAC admissions navigators can tell you about different options and approaches for alcohol addiction treatment and explain the first steps on the path to recovery. Counseling or therapy sessions aim to get to the root cause of alcohol abuse or manage potential co-occurring mental health issues to achieve lasting recovery.

You can also weigh out your options by calling your insurance provider whose number is provided at the back of your health insurance card and asking about alcohol rehab coverage you’re eligible for

Additionally, you can get general information about substance abuse from alcohol addiction hotlines that provide advice and guidance. Their compassionate advisors can help you evaluate the severity of your alcohol abuse, explain the cost of different treatment options, and direct you towards licensed SUD treatment providers or mutual support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  

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