Alcohol and its side effects are known to stick around in your body, but how long does alcohol actually stay in your system?
After you’ve drained your glass, your body immediately works to get rid of it. Chances are you’ll still be feeling it for about an hour, maybe even 2 hours depending on how your body metabolizes alcohol.
Here’s everything you need to know — from what counts as drunk, to how your body processes booze, to how long the alcohol effects hang around.
How long you feel the effects of alcohol depends on the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream, which varies from person to person (even from just a beer).
Also known as your blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, .08 percent counts as drunk from a legal perspective. Once your BAC hits .08 percent, you’ll have the tell-tale signs of being drunk. You’ll have trouble with things like speech, balance, coordination, and reaction times.
You’ll start noticing the milder effects of alcohol within 15 to 45 minutes of sipping (think change in mood and maybe you’ll feel a little warm).
On average, the body can process one standard drink per hour. This includes:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (like whisky, rum, tequila, or gin)
So after one drink, your BAC should be back below the “drunk” threshold about 60 minutes after you drain your glass. But again, this is a generalization and could be different depending on the person and situation.
It can also take 6 to 12 hours before the alcohol fully clears out of your bloodstream (hello, hangover!)
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, factors that affect how quickly or how long alcohol’s effects take to wear off include:
- what you drink
- eating or sipping water while drinking
- drinking on an empty stomach
- how much you drink
- how fast you drink (drinking more than one drink per hour)
- your sex or overall size
As you probably expected, how much and what you drink can really affect how long you feel tanked. Have more than your standard glass of any booze, and you can expect to feel the effects longer. Generally, this is what you can expect:
|Alcoholic beverage||Average time to process|
|small shot of liquor||1 hour|
|pint of beer||2 hours|
|full glass of wine||3 hours|
|a few drinks||several hours|
How to avoid getting drunk?
If you want to minimize your chances of getting drunk, eat something with your drink and alternate between alcohol and a glass of water.
And limit yourself to one drink per hour, max, to give your body time to process the booze without overloading your system.
You’re legally drunk once your BAC hits .08 percent or higher — the point at which it’s considered unsafe to drive. And the only way to know your BAC for sure is with a breath, blood, or urine test.
Of course, getting your BAC tested probably means you’re in trouble… so you’re better off trying to gauge your drunkenness based on how you feel. There’s a good chance you’re at or over the legal limit if you’re:
- slurring your words
- having trouble thinking clearly
- stumbling or falling
- bumping into things
- having trouble seeing clearly
- feeling confused or even disoriented
- feeling nauseous or are actually puking
But the problem is that once you’ve gotten to this level, you’re totally beyond good judgment calls. So, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t realize how drunk you are (or that it’s time to stop drinking 🛑).
That’s why it’s worth keeping tabs on how a drink makes you feel well before you get to that point, so you can know when it’s time to take a break or cut yourself off.
Always play it safe, folks
Have a game plan to get home safely after drinking. Have a designated driver or a ride-hailing service ready to go if you plan on drinking enough that your judgment will be impaired.
Didn’t have a plan, but you know you’re really feeling it? Get a ride-hailing service, even call a friend before you put yourself and others in danger. Even a few beers can impair your judgment.
After you stop drinking, booze stays in your bloodstream for up to 6 hours. But it can linger on your breath, in your saliva, or pee anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. Weirdly, it can be detected on your hair for up to 90 days (the more you know 💫).
But again, what you sip determines how long it’ll take for the alcohol from your booze sesh to clear out of your system.
- Beer: 5 percent alcohol
- Malt liquor: 7 percent alcohol.
- Wine: 12 percent alcohol.
- Hard liquor: 40 percent alcohol.
According to a 2013 research review, alcohol is technically a toxin. So, as soon as you drink it, your body starts working on getting it out of your system ASAP.
Once you swallow and the alcohol reaches your belly, it’s absorbed through the lining of your stomach and intestines into your bloodstream, causing you to feel those boozy effects ramping up.
Once the alcohol gets into your bloodstream, it starts flowing to all of your organs — reaching your brain in around 90 seconds.
As the alcohol hits your liver, the organ responsible for clearing toxins out, the liver responds by producing the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. Alcohol dehydrogenase breaks the booze down into ketones that exit your body via pee, sweat, or breath.
The deal with hangovers
The same 2013 research review above showed that there’s not much you can do to speed up hangovers. So-called hangover cures might help you feel less crappy after drinking too much, but they won’t help your body clear out the alcohol faster.
The best way to avoid overloading your system so it can process the booze at a steady clip is by not overdoing it in the first place.
Alcohol is detectable on your breath for 12 to 24 hours after drinking. Does that mean your breath will reek of booze all day after a big night out?
It’s hard to say for sure, and you could probably take some at-home measures to mask the rankness. But the stench can definitely be picked up on a breathalyzer test for that long.
A urine test can usually pick up alcohol up to 24 hours after drinking, but a 2007 study showed that some tests can potentially detect alcohol for much longer. On the flip side, the same study showed that drinking a ton of water before a test can drastically dilute the amount of alcohol that shows up.
It’s important to know that no amount of alcohol is considered safe to drink if you’re breastfeeding. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having just one drink and taking the right precautions shouldn’t harm your baby.
If you’re going to have a drink, know that alcohol is most concentrated in breast milk within 30 to 60 minutes after a standard-sized drink and tends to clear out within 2 to 3 hours. If you’re sticking with a moderate amount of booze, aka one standard-sized drink per day, play it extra safe by:
- breastfeeding or pumping before you have one standard-sized drink
- waiting 2 to 3 hours to nurse or pump after drinking. (If you have to pump sooner, you can also just dump that milk.)
Just keep in mind that drinking more than that can be bad for your baby’s growth and development, and can hurt your judgment.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is a toxin, and taking in more than your body can handle can lead to poisoning or an overdose — which can cause permanent brain damage or even death. Signs that someone might have alcohol poisoning include:
- severe confusion or seeming like they’re in a total stupor
- having trouble staying awake or not waking up
- vomiting, especially not gagging when vomiting
- breathing slowly or irregularly — think taking fewer than 8 breaths per minute or going more than 10 seconds in between breaths
- slow heart rate
- clammy skin
- feeling cold or looking paler than usual or bluish
If someone is showing any of these symptoms, don’t try to snap them out of it or assume that they’ll sleep it off. The only way to deal with alcohol poisoning is by getting emergency medical attention. Call 911 right away.
Your body processes alcohol at the rate of around one standard-sized drink per hour, but booze can be detected in your blood, breath, and pee for a long time afterwards.
Having more than that overloads your system with more booze than it can process at once, which is what ultimately causes you to feel drunk and sends your BAC over the legal limit.