If you consume alcohol, then at some point in time you’ve probably asked the question – how long does alcohol stay in your system?Or more specifically, how long does alcohol stay in your urine?
So, what is the truth? How long does alcohol stay in your urine before it can’t be detected anymore?
How is Alcohol Metabolized in the Body?
The first step to understanding how long alcohol stays in your urine is learning how your body processes alcohol. What happens when you down a shot of vodka on a night out or when you take a sip of wine in the evening?
As your alcoholic beverage trickles down your food pipe into the stomach, around 20% of the alcohol directly enters your bloodstream through the stomach. The remaining 80% moves down the digestive tract and is absorbed in the small intestines. From there, alcohol—which is a depressant—is carried to the brain and nervous system, where it impairs several body functions. Depending on your BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration), signs of intoxication may include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Euphoria—increased confidence and chattiness
- Slower reaction times
- Reduced inhibitions
- Loss of balance or drowsiness
- Speech and vision impairments
- Loss of memory and judgment
In extreme cases—especially after binge drinking—the amount of alcohol in your system may be high enough to negatively impact crucial body functions such as heart rate and breathing. This leads to life-threatening alcohol poisoning.
(PS: BAC is a percentage measurement of the amount of alcohol in the blood. Typically, an ounce of alcohol equates to a BAC of .015%. The negative effects of alcohol increase the more your drink. When the BAC reaches .08%, your motor skills and sense of balance are often impaired—and driving at/past this level of blood-alcohol concentration is deemed a crime in the U.S.).
Most of the alcohol that enters your bloodstream eventually makes a stop in the liver—which is mandated with the noble responsibility of metabolizing alcohol. But just like any other organ, the liver has its limits. It generally processes the equivalent of one standard alcoholic drink every hour. This brings us to a common misunderstanding – what exactly is a “standard drink?”
When it comes to measuring the amount of alcohol consumed, it not about the number of drinks chugged in a sitting—but more of the alcohol content in those drinks. Saying you drank 3 glasses of an alcoholic beverage is a rather vague answer. How so? Well, 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor (40% ABV), 12 ounces of beer (5% ABV), and 5 ounces of wine (12% ABV) all equate to one standard drink. Now back to the liver!
If someone consumes more than one standard drink per hour, the liver is not in a position to effectively metabolize the alcohol. When this is the case, the additional alcohol accumulates in body tissues and the blood—waiting for its turn to be metabolized. Generally, the liver eliminates more than 90% of alcohol in your bloodstream—while the rest is expelled through vomit, feces, sweat, and urine.
How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your System?
Whereas alcohol is absorbed into the body rapidly, getting it out of your system takes longer. You can feel the intoxicating effects of a drink in meager minutes—but you may struggle with a hangover for several hours.
In determining how long alcohol stays in your urine or system, it’s important to note that several factors come into play. Ever wondered why some people feel the intoxicating effects of alcohol for longer than others—despite consuming the same amount? Well, it turns out that there are other factors that affect the rate that alcohol is metabolized in your body. These include:
- Your age: As you age, the liver becomes less efficient—i.e., your tolerance/ability to handle alcohol decreases. The liver of an elderly person typically takes longer to process a certain amount of alcohol compared to that of a young adult.
- Sex: Due to differences in body composition, weight, and size, men tend to have lower BACs than women—after consuming comparable quantities of alcohol.
- Your size (weightand height): People with a high body fat content (i.e., low-water fatty tissue) often have higher BACs than those with more muscle tissue. Additionally, taller people have a lower BAC.
- How fast you’re drinking the alcohol: As highlighted earlier, your body metabolizes alcohol at an average rate of one standard drink per hour. With this in mind, drinking a lot in a short period will overtax your liver’s ability to process alcohol.
- If you’ve eaten before you began drinking alcohol or if you’re eating whiledrinking: Drinking after a meal delays the movement of alcohol in the small intestines—hence slowing down the rate of absorption and availability in the bloodstream.
- If any food eaten has a high-fat content
- If you’ve taken certain medications:Some drugs can interact with alcohol or alter the rate of metabolism. They may include diabetes medications (e.g., Chlorpropamide), cold medication, ADHD medicines (e.g., Adderall), metronidazole, and Anti-anxiety pills (e.g., Xanax).
All the factors above help to absorb the alcohol but it’s important to remember that your liver is the organ that metabolizes alcohol and it can only do that at a rate of 1 standard drinkper hour.
How is the Concentration of Alcohol in the Body Measured? And How DoDrug Tests Work?
Did you know that some tests (i.e. EtG test on hair stands) can detect traces of alcohol up to 3 months after your last drink? Other tests used to detect alcohol consumption include blood, breath, saliva, breastmilk, and urine tests—with the latter being widely used at work or in legal cases.
The most commonly used alcohol urine test is the EtG test, although blood tests to check for alcohol use are used as well. EtG stands for Ethyl Glucuronide – a metabolite from ethanol as the alcohol works its way through your system.
The EtG test isn’t always 100% accurate but it is a good indicator of when—and how much—alcohol has been consumed, which makes it the best choice for circumstances where the concern is alcohol abstinence. It’s not used as a test for alcohol consumption at work because it’s not able to provide a reliable measurement of impairment.
The EtG can give a false positive reading on occasion due to a person’s use of hand sanitizers or mouthwash but this is not common. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Advisor suggests that EtG test results should be read as:
- High positive: 1,000ng/ml or more – possibly indicates heavy drinking within 48 hours or light drinking within 24 hours.
- Low positive: 500-1,000 ng/ml – light drinking within 24 hours or recent intense extraneous exposure within 24 hours.
- Very low positive: 100-500 ng/ml – may indicate previous heavy drinking within 1 to 3 days, previous light drinking within 12 to 36 hours or recent extraneous exposure.
As you can see, the answer to how long alcohol can be detected in urine is not easy to discover particularly when you consider that only 0.5 to 1.5% of alcohol is disposed of through your urine.
How Long Before an Alcohol Urine Test Should You Stop Drinking?
The short answer to this question is 12 to 36 hours. However, as we’ve mentioned, some tests can detect traces of alcohol up to 80 hours.
A more appropriate question may be “Why do you have to undertake an alcohol urine test?”
As previously mentioned, an alcohol urine test is not usually used in the workplace so often. Urine tests are used to determine when a person has last had an alcoholic drink, for example, if you’ve been ordered by the court to attend an alcohol rehabilitation program or if you are suspected of driving while under the influence.
Debunking Myths Surrounding Breastfeeding and Alcohol Consumption
- Myth 1: Does tracking the amount of alcohol consumed and the average time it takes to expel it from the system help prevent unsafe breast milk?It’s imperative to note that alcohol can have negative consequences on the development of a breastfeeding baby. Although alcohol clears from breastmilk in up to 3 hours for a standard drink, the rate of metabolism varies depending on several factors (as highlighted earlier)—hence it’s not worth taking the risk. But if you happen to partake in alcohol, either breastfeed before consumption, feed your baby with expressed milk, or wait at least 3 hours before breastfeeding again.
- Myth 2: Does “pumping and dumping” breastmilk help clear alcohol? The short answer is NO! Pumping breast milk does not expel alcohol from the system any faster—and as long as there’s alcohol in your system, some of it will be in your breastmilk.
Blood Alcohol Content Calculator
Find Help in Case of an Alcohol Use Disorder!
Understanding how alcohol metabolizes alcohol and BAC can help prevent the consequences of excessive consumption or Alcohol Use Disorder—which is an increasingly serious public health problem. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), nearly 15 million Americans (above the age of 12) had an alcohol use disorder in 2017. For this reason, it’s important to seek help if you—or someone you know—are worried about your unhealthy drinking habits. A qualified addiction treatment center such as Revive Recovery can help you break the cycle of AUD—helping you get your life back.
Dr. Ronaye Calvert-Conley is the CEO and Founder of Revive Detox, a Joint Commission Accredited and Legit Script Certified Addiction Treatment Center in Los Angeles, CA. She earned her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University in Los Angeles in 2007 and has extensive experience working in the addiction and recovery field and the LGBT community. To learn more about Dr. Calvert-Conley click here.
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