How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
You’ve taken a big gulp of wine. How long will it stay in your system?
The amount of time alcohol will show up on a test varies depending on the testing method used:
- Blood: up to 12 hours
- Breath: up to 24 hours
- Breast milk: up to 3 hours
- Hair: up to 90 days
- Saliva: up to 48 hours
- Urine: up to 5 days
Alcohol is processed by your liver and other critical organs. They need time to do their work, and there’s nothing you can do to sober up faster. Your best bet: Don’t drink too much alcohol or stop drinking altogether.
How Is Alcohol Metabolized?
Each sip of alcohol moves from your mouth to your stomach and out into the bloodstream. From there, it’s transformed into metabolites and then removed from your body.
A typical alcohol metabolization pathway looks like this:
- Enzymes are released. Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) enter the bloodstream and break apart molecules of alcohol.
- Transformation begins. Alcohol becomes acetaldehyde. This substance is toxic, and it’s partially responsible for alcohol’s link to cancer risks.
- Transformation ends. Acetaldehyde becomes acetate, then water and carbon dioxide.
- The elimination process begins. Alcohol is removed through your breath and urine.
Your liver works hard to remove alcohol from your body. This organ makes the enzymes that start the digestive process. But your liver works slowly. It can reduce your blood alcohol content (BAC) by about 0.015 per hour.
Your alcohol metabolization rate is influenced by your sex, race, age, and weight. Your organ health matters too. But in general, metabolizing alcohol is a slow process.
Can You Sober Up Quicker?
Once alcohol enters your body, there’s no way to make your body metabolize it more quickly. Your liver needs time, and you can’t push it.
If you’re worried about passing an alcohol screening test after a big event, follow a few tips from food service workers:
- Count. Keep track of how many drinks you’ve had in one sitting. Keep a mental note so you don’t drink too much.
- Observe. Are you feeling tipsy? Stop drinking now. If you continue drinking, you’ll end up drunk.
- Sip. Ask for a glass of water or another nonalcoholic drink to stay hydrated. Alternating alcoholic beverages with water can slow intoxication.
- Eat. Food helps to slow alcohol absorption, and a snack keeps your mouth busy too. Food won’t help you sober up once you’re already drunk.
- Skip. Don’t order a new drink every time your server checks on you. It’s better to nurse one drink over a longer period of time.
If you’ve tried to limit how much you drink in one sitting and you can’t, don’t drink alcohol at all. Stick with water, juice, tea, or other tasty nonalcoholic beverages.
Alcohol Testing: What You Should Know
A typical alcohol test happens “in the field.” You’ve been pulled over for erratic driving, and a police officer wants to determine if alcohol is to blame. These breath-based tests can detect your drinks for up to a day.
Your employer might use blood, urine, or other tests to determine if you’ve been drinking recently. Timeframes on these tests are extended, and some forms that look for alcohol metabolites can spot your drinks for days.
Plenty of get-sober-quick myths exist, and none of them work. You can’t get sober quickly by doing any of these:
- Drinking coffee
- Eating a big meal
- Taking a cold shower
- Throwing up
Don’t try to cheat a test. Instead, look for ways to limit your drinking.
And if you can’t stop drinking on your own, get help from a qualified treatment program. If you want to stop drinking and aren’t able to, it’s a sign you need help.
Alcohol Alert. (July 2007). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Alcohol Metabolism. Bowling Green State University.
Server Tip: How to Slow Alcohol Service. State Food Safety.
Drinking Alcohol: Myths vs. Facts. (December 2016). University of Virginia.
It Takes Time to Sober Up. University Health Service, University of Michigan.
How Can I Sober Up Fast? (March 2018). SHAPE.
Alcohol Metabolism. (November 2013). Clinical Liver Disease.
Underage Drinking: Myths Versus Facts. (2021). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.