It’s a nice night on a college campus in Massachusetts. You go out to the local bar with your buddies to watch some football and have one too many beers. Those beers … snuck up on you, to say the least. Now you’re wondering what to do next since it’s time for you all to head back home, and you drove everyone to the bar. You might be thinking, “How long until this wears off?”
The quick answer is: too long for you to drive safely that night. Let’s discuss how long alcohol stays in your system, how it is broken down in your body, and options for alcohol rehab.
How Is Alcohol Broken Down in Your Body?
Alcohol is broken down in the liver by an enzyme (a protein that causes a chemical reaction) called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). ADH will turn the alcohol into acetaldehyde. This is a toxic compound, but it’s quickly broken down by something called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) into a less toxic compound called acetate. Acetate is then broken down into carbon dioxide and water by other organs. This whole process is known as alcohol metabolism.
How Long Is This Process?
The length of time alcohol metabolism takes depends on a couple of factors: how much alcohol was consumed and the strength of the alcohol itself. The alcohol that we drink is called ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, and each alcoholic beverage has a different percentage of ethanol in it. For example:
- One glass of wine is 12% ethanol
- One can of beer is 5% ethanol
- One shot of distilled spirits is 40% ethanol
Each of these beverages is a standard drink, and the standard drink has about 14 grams of ethanol in it. Alcohol takes an hour to 90 minutes to reach its highest levels within the bloodstream before it metabolizes (breaks down).
Alcohol has a half-life of four to five hours. A half-life is the amount of time it takes your body to get rid of half of a substance. To get rid of alcohol throughout the body, it takes about five half-lives. This process takes a little over a day (25 hours).
Alcohol metabolism depends on a few other factors as well. Some of these factors include:
- Age (the process of alcohol metabolism slows down as one gets older)
- Medications (depending on the medication, this can cause a dangerous interaction)
- Sex (women take longer than men to process alcohol, studies have shown)
- Size (studies have also shown that smaller people can drink the same amount as larger people and feel the effects much quicker)
Alcohol within the body is measured by blood alcohol content or BAC.
Detecting Alcohol in Your Body
There are several tests that can find alcohol within the body. Ethanol (the alcohol in a beverage) is what these tests aim to find, but this is typically measured as blood alcohol content (BAC). BAC is how much alcohol is in a person’s bloodstream. For example, if someone had two parts alcohol for every 1,000 parts of blood, they would have a BAC of 0.20%. The point of legal intoxication (being drunk) is 0.08% or higher.
BAC is influenced by several factors:
- How much ethanol was in a drink
- How much alcohol was consumed
- The size/weight of the person drinking
- The sex of the person drinking
- If the person was drinking on an empty stomach
There are three types of tests that test for alcohol: the breathalyzer, EtG tests, and a blood alcohol test.
A test that you have probably heard of before, the breathalyzer is the most commonly used test for BAC. Breathalyzers measure how much alcohol is in a person’s breath.
When someone drinks alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream after it goes to the stomach and small intestine. Alcohol is carried to different parts of the body, and most of it will be broken down by the liver. The alcohol that isn’t broken down by the liver will come out through your urine and your breath.
To take a breathalyzer test, all you need to do is breathe on it, and it’ll read your BAC. While this is the most convenient way to test someone, it isn’t the most accurate. The test that is more accurate is an EtG test.
This test is one of the most accurate and time-sensitive tests for alcohol. EtG, short for ethyl glucuronide, is a combination of ethanol and a compound (chemical) called glucuronide produced in the liver. EtG allows toxins to be expelled through the urine.
These tests are more accurate because EtG can be found in the urine much longer than it can be found within the breath or blood. EtG can be found for up to 48 hours (two days), or 72 hours (three days) if the drinking was heavier.
The downside to these tests is that the detection of EtG has a ceiling effect. If someone has engaged in heavier drinking, the fact that more alcohol was consumed might not read on an EtG test due to the test having its limit. This is because EtG tests weren’t designed to detect heavy drinking, they were designed to detect any form of alcohol consumption.
The final test is a blood alcohol test.
Blood Alcohol Test
A blood alcohol test is a very accurate way to test for alcohol consumption. This is a simple test that is basically getting a blood sample. The doctor will insert a needle into your vein, take some of your blood, and it will be sent to a lab where it is tested. This test is very accurate but is not ideal in terms of time. It can take over six weeks to get the results back. This isn’t as realistic as a breathalyzer test and not as time-sensitive as an EtG test, which is why it isn’t used as much.
These tests are typically for your average person who drinks alcohol, but there are some people that aren’t able to process alcohol the same way. These people have an alcohol intolerance.
Alcohol intolerance is a condition in which a person can’t break alcohol down properly. As said earlier, alcohol is broken down by an enzyme in the liver (alcohol dehydrogenase or ADH). People who are intolerant to alcohol don’t have ADH, which means that something within the alcohol (if not the ethanol itself) can cause a reaction. The symptoms that someone with alcohol intolerance may have are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low blood pressure
- Flushing (redness of the skin)
- Hives (red bumps on the skin)
An alcohol intolerance, although similar, is different from an alcohol allergy.
Alcohol Intolerance vs. Alcohol Allergy
An alcohol intolerance is the inability to process alcohol. An allergy to alcohol is typically an allergic reaction to an ingredient within the alcoholic beverage. Alcohol intolerance and allergies are similar, but alcohol intolerance is genetic (inborn), while alcohol allergies are not. Some of the ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction include:
- Egg/seafood proteins
- Barley, wheat, or hops
- Proteins within grapes
An allergic reaction to alcohol could cause rashes and difficulty breathing. That said, someone with an alcohol intolerance or an alcohol allergy still has the potential to misuse alcohol.
Binge drinking is drinking over the recommended average of moderate alcohol consumption, to the point of getting one’s BAC to 0.08% or higher. This would be a man drinking five drinks or more within two hours or a woman drinking four or more drinks in the same time frame. This form of drinking can lead to many accidental injuries, such as falls, burns, and car accidents. This is the most common form of excessive drinking and one of the most common forms of drinking among college students.
Binge Drinking in College Students
The demographic (segment of the population) who binge drinks the most is men ages 18-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This demographic is important to this section because a portion of that demographic is college students.
As you know, drinking in college is a common occurrence. As a matter of fact, 53% of full-time college students said that they drank alcohol within the past month, and 33% engaged in binge drinking. Why is this? Well, it always depends on certain factors.
The first six weeks of freshman year are said to be the most vulnerable time for drinking. This is due to the social pressure to drink and academic expectations. These are factors that can influence drinking, but it is important to note that the environment influences this, too. For example, if you attend a college that has a pretty active Greek life (somewhere like Boston University, for example), there is typically more drinking than at a college without a Greek life. Also, colleges with a better athletic program (Go Eagles!) tend to have a culture that promotes drinking more than other colleges.
Among all demographics, binge drinking has several consequences. College students are not immune to the negative effects of binge drinking as they can suffer from:
- Academic problems
- Several forms of assault
- Alcohol poisoning, or overdose
When someone engages in binge drinking, they are usually at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Also known as alcoholism, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is an addiction to alcohol. There are certain criteria that must be met for one to be diagnosed with AUD, and those criteria can be found here.
AUD can range from mild to severe and has several different symptoms. These symptoms can include:
- Cravings to drink alcohol
- Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
- Giving up/reducing social activities and work to drink
- Continuing to drink even though it is causing problems physically, mentally, and in your personal life
AUD can cause several health problems as well, one of them being cirrhosis of the liver.
Cirrhosis of the Liver
As said earlier, it is understood how big the liver’s role is in processing alcohol. After that alcohol is processed, the liver takes a little bit of damage. This is OK because the liver heals itself from this damage, leaving a little bit of scar tissue. Cirrhosis is a condition where the liver keeps scarring and scarring, to the point where it is unable to get rid of any toxins or digest food.
While the signs of cirrhosis may not show up until later stages of the condition, it is late-stage cirrhosis that is life-threatening. These symptoms can include:
- Weight loss
- Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the eyes and skin)
- Itchy skin
Alcohol addiction is a common addiction that many struggle with, and unfortunately, it can be fatal. We offer alcohol addiction treatment because we believe in the best-case scenarios of life after addiction for our patients.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
The first step of any recovery process is seeking treatment. Our alcohol addiction treatment program at East Coast Recovery makes sure to address the individualized needs of our fellow Bay Staters as we see every patient as a unique person.
One of the most typical feelings on the road to recovery is the feeling of letting your loved ones down. You might be thinking, “How do I even talk to them again?” You also might be thinking, “Well, their issues led me to this, so I have every right to resent them.” Both of these are normal feelings to have and should be addressed in family therapy.
Alcohol addiction affects so many people, including the ones you love. Family therapy is a way for you to learn how addiction has affected them. It is also a way for you to tell your family about why you felt the need to turn to the bottle and how they can help you in recovery. Family therapy should be honest but not hostile. Tensions will run high due to this being an emotional experience, but it shouldn’t turn into attacking each other as that won’t be productive for anyone.
Family therapy helps rekindle the relationship between you and your family, and helps both parties grow closer as time goes on.
Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)
You likely have to maintain other duties outside of treatment, especially as a college student or full-time employee. This is why East Coast Recovery offers an intensive outpatient program (IOP). IOP patients will attend sessions at the facility but continue to live at home.
An IOP can be a transitional phase as well. For patients that were living at a facility, this gets them ready to go home while still getting treatment. IOPs are in-depth and require a much larger time commitment than other outpatient programs. At least ten hours of therapy, both one-on-one and group forms, can be expected weekly during this program. The average length of an IOP is 90 days, although it varies depending on the patient.
The journey of recovery doesn’t stop at the treatment center. An aftercare program is a structured plan to help someone after they have gone through a treatment program. The goal for aftercare programming is to help patients in early recovery. This includes relapse prevention and helping a person regain and keep control of their lives.
As you enter society once more, there will be triggers and cravings. Aftercare plans are designed to help you use the coping skills learned in treatment. During this aftercare program, patients will:
- Build a sober support system
- Pursue hobbies and self-care
- Attend recovery meetings
- Learn relapse warning signs
Aftercare is the home stretch of the path, and we are willing to keep walking with you.
Walk the Path With Us
East Coast Recovery is here to help you on your road to recovery. Located in Cohasset, Massachusetts, our mission is to help people achieve success through overcoming addiction. We meet the patient where they are and aim to find the long-term solution for sobriety. Call (617) 390-8349 to start walking the path of recovery.
How long does it take to get alcohol out of your body?
On average, it takes about 25 hours to get alcohol out of your body. But some tests can detect it for multiple days.
How do I flush alcohol out of my system?
While certain remedies such as drinking water, coffee, or taking cold showers have been said to help, alcohol still has to go through a metabolism process, which simply takes time.
Will I fail a drug test if I drank the night before?
Possibly. Since the drug test will more than likely be a urine test, the byproduct of ethanol (EtG) can stay in your urine for up to 48 hours on average.