This article was written and published by RCA.
Have you ever been out drinking with friends and wondered, “Am I safe to drive?” It can be hard to judge how much alcohol tips over to unsafe levels when you’re drinking. This is why it is usually safer to have a designated driver, or a plan to stay somewhere safe after drinking. This way, you don’t have to try and make that judgment call while under the influence.
What about other instances? Have you ever tried to have a drink before a family event, not wanting to be drunk while there, but felt the need to “take the edge off” before you go? You might not feel like you’re not drunk anymore, but how long does alcohol stay in your system?
There are many limitations that come along with drinking. Some of these limits are government-set, while others might be set for the individual. For example, it is illegal to drive a car if you have a blood-alcohol content of over 0.08%. In some states, like Indiana, you can even be fined if you have a BAC over 0.2%. Others might set a limit of a certain number of drinks for themselves so they don’t feel bad the next day. Whether you’re following your own limits, or ones set by someone else, knowing how long alcohol stays in your system is essential.
Our team here at Recovery Centers of America strives to help people address substance use of all kinds. Let’s look at how alcohol metabolizes in the body, how long it sticks around, and what impacts these timelines.
How Are Alcohol Levels Measured in the Body?
You might have heard of the term “blood alcohol content” or “blood alcohol concentration” (commonly abbreviated as BAC). This measurement is used to determine how much alcohol is currently in a person’s system. Using this measurement, you can determine approximately how intoxicated someone is.
Alcohol can enter the bloodstream as it’s being processed in the body. This normally shows up within 30-70 minutes after you consume a drink. It’s important to note that despite what many rumors might say, there is no method or trick to lowering your BAC. Cold showers, coffee, water – none of it will impact your BAC levels.
While alcohol won’t show up in the breath in the same concentration as it will in the blood, breathalyzers are a common form of testing to see how intoxicated someone really is. They utilize a ratio to determine your BAC from how much alcohol is detected in your breath.
How Does the Body Metabolize Alcohol?
Even though it’s legal to consume, alcohol is still technically a toxin to your body. Luckily, we have our liver, which is able to process toxins within the body.
The liver, however, can only handle so much alcohol at a time. Processing alcohol is not an instant process. If you continue to drink once your liver has reached its capacity, this is when alcohol can more easily start to reach other parts of your body, like your bloodstream.
Alcohol and the Liver
The liver utilized an enzyme that it produces known as alcohol dehydrogenase to process and break down alcohol as it passes through your digestive tract. Over time, if you have a history of alcohol consumption, especially in large quantities, this can actually start to damage your liver. When it’s damaged, this can lead to scar tissue developing in the liver. The more scar tissue you have, the higher your chance of complications and total liver failure. This can be difficult to spot from the outside until it has significantly progressed.
Factors That Affect the Rate That Alcohol Is Processed
There are many things that can impact exactly how long it takes for alcohol to be processed through your body. For the average, healthy adult it normally takes about one hour to process one drink. Of course, this is just an average. Let’s look at the things that can alter this timeframe.
- Sex – Statistically, males are born with a larger amount of the enzyme used to process alcohol. This can make it easier or faster for them than their female counterparts.
- Weight – Fat can actually store alcohol at times. If someone has a higher concentration of it, this could affect the time it takes them to process alcohol.
- Metabolism – This doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with weight. Everyone’s metabolism is different and it can alter your timeline for alcohol processing.
- History of Alcohol Use – While people do build up a tolerance to alcohol and its effects, this doesn’t actually mean that it’s being processed any faster. In fact, long-term use can lead to liver damage which can greatly impact the time it takes to process alcohol.
What Is Alcoholism?
Having one or two drinks every once in a while does not suddenly mean someone has alcoholism, also known as an alcohol use disorder or AUD. An AUD comes with other concerns such as how it impacts your life, your loved ones around you, and your ability to choose how much you drink and when to stop.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism actually outlines some determining factors for what can point toward someone having an AUD. While these are not an affinitive diagnosis, this can help give you a baseline to determine whether or not you need to seek help:
Here are some of the signs of alcoholism they list:
- Alcohol takes up a large portion of your day (whether consuming it, thinking about it, or recovering from it)
- You’ve regularly started to miss out on events you used to enjoy
- Your alcohol use is impacting those around you such as family, loved ones, and even your job
- You find you’re unable to cut back or stop drinking, even if you want to
- You experience symptoms (alcohol withdrawal) when you’re not drinking
These are just to name a few. If this sounds familiar to you or about a loved one, it might be important to take some time to think about it all.
Getting Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Here at Recovery Centers of America, we know that addiction isn’t a choice, and it’s not something you asked for. If you or a loved one is looking to start, or resume, your recovery journey – you’re in the right place. We know you can reach your recovery goals, and we’re here to help you even after you leave our doors.
Alcohol treatment often starts with alcohol detox. Alcohol is known to have negative side effects during withdrawal such as seizures and hallucinations. Detox is a program that can assist a person during withdrawal to make it more safe and comfortable.
During detox, once patients are comfortable, we have an inpatient program that is split into three different paths. We work with patients in order to determine which path will best suit them based on their substance history and recovery goals. In addition, all patients have a case manager that they speak with from the start. They work alongside them and their therapist to make sure they’re on the path of healing that they want to be on.
We also work to engage our community and beyond with our AA programs, which are open to the public. We also have an extensive alumni program that strives to help keep patients connected. This works well alongside our outpatient program. We know often that going back to the places you were at before you started recovery can be difficult to adjust to. That’s what outpatient and our alumni groups can help with. They offer additional support, comfort, and understanding during any rough patches a person may face.
How Do You Know When You’re Drunk?
The best way to know is to count how many drinks you’ve had unless you have a breathalyzer on hand. Everyone experiences different symptoms when drinking, but commonly after 3 or so drinks, you should be wary of your intoxication levels.
How long does alcohol stay in the body?
On average, a healthy human adult will process 1 alcoholic drink every 1 hour.
When should you seek medical help for alcoholism?
If you’re unable to reduce or stop your drinking on your own, no matter how much you want to, you should seek help from a medical professional.