Ever woken up after drinking alcohol and wondered if you might still be buzzed from the night before? Well, it’s certainly possible. Because surprise: Alcohol stays in your system longer than you may think.
We talked to David Hamptona certified professional addiction and recovery coach, and Dr. Michael Weavera professor of psychiatry at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, about how long alcohol sticks around in your body.
How long does alcohol stay in your system?
It’s about an hour for every drink you consume. So, if you have one drink, it will take about 60 minutes or so for your body to break down that amount of alcohol, according to Dr. Weaver. “If you have three, four, or five drinks, it [takes] that many hours until [they’re] out of your system,” said Dr. Weaver.
And by “drink,” Dr. Weaver means a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (looking at you, heavy-handed pourers).
But when it comes to testing, there’s a whole different set of considerations at play. These tests are all used to ensure that you’re using safe drinking practices. Some tests can detect alcohol in your system longer than others. Breath tests, for example, can detect alcohol for around 24 hours. While a urine test can detect alcohol between 12 to 48 hours after your last drink, said Hampton. “Some advanced urine tests can detect alcohol even 80 hours after you’ve had a drink.”
And what might come as the biggest surprise: “Alcohol can stay in your hair for a period of up to 90 days,” Hampton said.
Does alcohol last longer in some people’s systems than in others?
Short answer: Yes. It can depend on:
body size: You and your friend may drink the same amount of alcohol in the same time period, but you won’t necessarily process it the same way. In this case, the person who weighs more, and has a higher body fat percentage, will have lower blood alcohol content (BAC) levels. That’s because they have more water in their body to dilute the alcohol more quickly.
Biological sex: Cis women Typically have a higher BAC than cis men when they consume the same amount of alcohol. While a person’s body composition plays a factor, cis women have been found to produce less of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). Which is released in the liver and helps break down alcohol in the body. And because cis women have higher natural body fat levels (and lower body water levels), alcohol is retained longer in the body. This is because fat helps retain alcohol while water helps dilute it.
Age: As you get older, you’re less able to metabolize alcohol efficacy. Which means that your BAC will likely be higher if you drink the same amount of alcohol as someone who’s younger. So the three beers you could easily handle in your 20s might hit harder in your 30s (cue: a vicious hangover).
Volume: Aka binge drinking territory. Think: having four drinks within two hours if you’re a cis woman or having five drinks within two hours if you’re a cis man. Your BAC will rise quicker than usual because your body doesn’t have the time to metabolize all the alcohol. Which means it takes longer for it to process and leave the body. So you’ll feel the effects sooner.
Got it. Does the type of alcohol matter?
Nope: It’s all going to be processed by the body the same way whether you drink wine, beer or spirits, according to Hampton.
Alcohol can remain in your system for hours or even days after your last sip. So keep track of how many drinks you had to help you avoid a rough start to your morning. And know that affects everyone differently.