If you have to take a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test for work or another organization, or you're wondering how long you must wait until it is safe to drive after having some drinks, you may be surprised to learn how long it takes to get alcohol out of your system. Although each person metabolizes alcohol a bit differently, there are a few factors that will impact how long you feel the effects and how long alcohol will remain in your system.
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How the Body Processes Alcohol
After you start drinking, alcohol travels to your stomach. Some people have stomach enzymes that help them begin processing the alcohol there. These enzymes are alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). If you have them, some of the alcohol you drink will be processed in your stomach before the remainder moves on to the small intestine.
If you do not have ADH and ALDH or have low levels of them, all of the alcohol will pass right through to the small intestine. From there, it travels into your bloodstream and your brain. This occurs about 60 to 90 minutes after you start drinking, which is when you will likely feel the full effects of the alcohol.
At this point, your liver begins to process the alcohol in your system. This organ plays the most significant role in alcohol metabolism, processing approximately 90% of the alcohol consumed. Your kidneys, lungs, and skin process the remaining 10%, which is expelled through your urine, breath, and pores.
Factors That Affect Alcohol Metabolism
On average, the liver can metabolize one drink per hour. One drink counts as:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of hard liquor
If you consume more than one alcoholic beverage per hour, the excess alcohol will build up in the blood and body tissues. You cannot speed up how quickly alcohol leaves your system. However, certain factors will impact how efficiently your body metabolizes alcohol:
Age plays a big part in how your body processes alcohol. Generally, the older you are, the slower your body will process alcohol. That is why you may notice that alcohol affects you differently than it did in your twenties. You may feel intoxicated from fewer drinks and experience worse hangovers the day after.
The more you weigh, the more water your body will contain. The concentration of alcohol in your system may be higher than a person who weighs more but consumes the same amount of alcohol as you.
If you have health conditions affecting the liver, kidneys, or stomach, your body may have difficulty processing alcohol. These organs play major roles in alcohol metabolism, so any impairment will affect how efficiently they can help alcohol pass through your system.
Many medications interact with alcohol, either amplifying its effects or interfering with how well your medication works. You should check with your provider if it is safe to drink while taking your prescription. You will also find information about potential interactions with alcohol on the pamphlet that comes with your medication from the pharmacy.
Women tend to take longer than men to process alcohol. This is because women are likelier to have less body water and dehydrogenase than men. Also, birth control pills and estrogen medications can slow down alcohol metabolism.
If any of the above applies to you, taking that into consideration when drinking can help you moderate your consumption.