Factors such as weight, gender and age affect alcohol absorption. Learn more about the factors that influence intoxication, alcohol’s path through the body and the length of time the substance can be detected in your system.
Alcohol breaks down differently in each person’s body. The substance is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach and the walls of the small intestines, affecting the kidneys, bladder, liver, lungs and skin.
It takes time for alcohol to pass through your system. Factors such as liver size, body mass and the amount of alcohol consumed also determine how long alcohol stays in your body.
Upon consumption, alcohol enters the stomach and intestines. Once the substance enters the capillaries surrounding the stomach and small intestines, it enters passageways that lead to the portal vein, which passes through the liver and branches out into the capillaries.
Once the substance enters the bloodstream, it affects all major organs in your body, including the heart and brain. Alcohol reaches all body tissues except bone and fat.
The liver breaks down most of the alcohol, though the substance also passes through kidneys, urine, skin and lungs.
Alcohol — or ethanol — can be detected through urine, breath, saliva, sweat, blood and hair. Multiple reports estimate that alcohol is detectable in the urine for anywhere from 2 hours to 24 hours. This length of time depends on how recently and how much you drank.
A 2006 publication by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that a breathalyzer can detect alcohol in your breath up to 24 hours after drinking. Alcohol can be detected in your saliva two hours after consumption, and a hair test, called an EtG test, can detect alcohol for up to 90 days.
Ninety percent of alcohol consumed passes through the liver. The organ breaks down the alcohol into acetaldehyde, a chemical the body recognizes as toxic. Acetaldehyde metabolizes into carbon dioxide, which the body can eliminate.
In some cases, the production of acetaldehyde is insufficient. This leads to some people experiencing flushing, a sudden reddening of the skin that often occurs in the face or neck region. Flushing can lead to dizziness, nausea or vomiting.
The liver eliminates alcohol at a fixed rate. A healthy liver will eliminate one normal-sized alcoholic beverage in about one hour. So after a night of heavy drinking, your BAC may still be over the legal driving limit the next morning.
Genetic, environmental, and physical and mental health factors control alcohol metabolism and elevate your blood alcohol content — the percentage of alcohol in the blood.
Your body absorbs alcohol more slowly when you have food in your stomach. Those who drink on an empty stomach will feel the effects of alcohol more quickly: A person who has not eaten will hit their peak blood alcohol level between 30 minutes and two hours after consumption, depending on the amount of alcohol consumed.
Eating high protein foods, such as tofu or cheese, before or while drinking can slow the absorption of alcohol.
Some drinks are stronger than others. According to the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, a single drink equals one of the following measurements:
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Drinking stronger alcoholic beverages can accelerate the absorption rate. This causes alcohol to stay in your system for longer periods of time.
Men and women break down alcohol at different rates. Women have less dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. This contributes to women reaching higher blood alcohol levels than men despite drinking the same amount of alcohol.
For example, a 140-pound man who drinks two alcoholic beverages in one hour will have a blood alcohol content of 0.038. A 140-pound woman who consumed just as many drinks in one hour has a BAC of 0.048.
Meanwhile, a 130-pound woman will reach inebriation at a much different rate.
Hormone levels also affect BAC. Women who drink their normal amount of alcohol prior to menstruation will experience higher BACs than they otherwise would.
Women also tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and a lower percentage of water, which influences intoxication and the length of time alcohol remains in their system.
Your mood can affect alcohol consumption. It can also affect the way the body reacts to alcohol. Euphoric effects generally occur at a BAC of 0.02 to 0.05. Once a BAC reaches about 0.07, the drinker’s mood may worsen.
If someone battles a mood disorder, such as depression or anxiety, their symptoms may worsen when drinking. Stressful emotions can cause a change in the stomach’s enzymes, which affects how a person breaks down alcohol.
Age plays an integral factor in reaching intoxication. For example, senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to alcohol because of age-related changes to their bodies. Older people experience a decrease in body water, loss of muscle tissue and decreased metabolism — all of which affects alcohol absorption.
When you drink more than about one glass per hour, alcohol accumulates in your system, elevating your BAC. The higher your BAC, the more intoxicated you become.
|0.01 to 0.12||Increased self-confidence, impulsiveness, carelessness and unpredictability|
|0.09 to 0.25||Impaired judgement, memory, coordination and vision|
|0.18 to 0.30||Slurred speech, sleepiness, confusion and mood changes|
|0.25 to 0.49||Impaired movement, no response to stimuli and sporadic unconsciousness|
|0.35 to 0.50||Unconsciousness, slowed heart rate, breathing problems, possible death|
Your nervous system can shut down if your BAC reaches 0.50, affecting breathing, heartbeat, blood circulation and digestion and resulting in death.
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Your body can handle only a limited amount of alcohol. Heavy drinking can result in the elimination of vitamins and minerals from the body, which can lead to a hangover. Hangovers make you feel fatigued or sick because of the reduction in vitamin B.
Regardless of the amount alcohol you consume, the body metabolizes a certain amount of alcohol every hour. According to SAMHSA, alcohol metabolizes at an average rate of 15 to 25 milligrams per hour. The more you drink, the longer it takes your body to expel the alcohol.
Drinking coffee, taking a cold shower and exercising will not help you reach sobriety faster. These techniques create the illusion of sobriety, but they have no effect on your BAC.
Drinking water can ease the discomfort of a hangover. However, the only way to get sober is to give your liver time to break down the alcohol. Nothing will speed this process.