There can be a fine line between “having a good time” and alcohol abuse. Many factors can influence an individual’s response to alcohol, including gender, food intake, other medications and genetics.
Alcohol is a depressant and works by slowing signals between the body and brain. Over time, the body adjusts to the presence of alcohol and withdrawal symptoms may occur if alcohol consumption stops. Symptoms of withdrawal can vary from mild trembles to severe hallucinations and seizures.
When someone drinks alcohol, the vast majority is broken down by the liver and a tiny amount is expelled through breath and sweat. The remaining 1–2% is excreted in the urine. Alcohol will usually show up in a person’s urine within an hour of drinking, and it usually remains detectable for up to 12 hours. The actual timeframe may vary, depending on a number of factors, including weight, health, gender and the amount of alcohol consumed.
One standard drink contains about 14 grams of alcohol, the amount found in:
Once swallowed, alcohol enters the stomach and small intestine and from there, it is absorbed into small blood vessels which carry it to the bloodstream. Approximately 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and the remainder through the small intestine. Alcohol is then metabolized by liver enzymes in the liver.
The half-life of alcohol is approximately five hours. This is the time it takes for half of the alcohol ingested to be metabolized and excreted. It takes about five half-lives to fully metabolize and eliminate a substance, so this means it would take about 25 hours for alcohol to be fully eliminated.
Unless specifically requested, standard drug tests usually do not test for alcohol. However, many employers include alcohol in drug-free workplace policies and can test for blood alcohol content (BAC) on saliva or breath tests. Often, this is conducted as a random drug screening in the workplace or if an accident occurs.
As an employee, consult your employee handbook or ask an HR representative if you aren’t sure if your company tests for alcohol as part of its Substance Abuse Program.
While 92-98% of alcohol is metabolized in the liver, the remaining 2-8% leaves the body through urine, sweat and breath. Some drugs can show up in a person’s urine for days or weeks, but alcohol has a much shorter detection window. A urine screening can typically detect ethanol — the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages — for up to 12 hours.
There are other types of urine tests, such as EtG and EtS tests, that can identify traces of alcohol byproducts for up to 72 hours after a person’s last drink, but those tests have significant limitations.
Alcohol can be detected in a urine sample within an hour of drinking, and it usually remains detectable for up to 12 hours. The actual timeframe may vary, depending on a number of factors, including weight, health, gender and the amount of alcohol consumed.
Urine alcohol content is sometimes used to estimate a person’s blood alcohol content. The amount of alcohol in a person’s urine is approximately 1.33 times greater than the amount of alcohol in their bloodstream. For accuracy, at least two urine samples are usually collected 30 minutes to an hour apart.
While alcohol itself has a relatively short detection window of only a few hours, certain alcohol byproducts stay in the body longer. One of these byproducts, ethyl glucuronide (EtG), can be detected in urine for up to three days after a person’s last drink. Some labs also test urine for ethyl sulfate (EtS), another metabolite that signals recent alcohol intake.
EtG and EtS tests are sometimes used by courts to see if people on probation are complying with requirements that they remain abstinent from alcohol. Some rehab programs also use these tests to monitor people in treatment and identify potential relapse.
While EtG and EtS urine tests provide a longer detection window for alcohol use, they have several drawbacks. The testing is not as widely available as a standard urine screening for ethanol and it costs more. EtG/EtS testing can’t tell you how much alcohol a person consumed, and it can’t differentiate between ethanol from alcoholic beverages and exposure to alcohol from other products.
People who use over-the-counter flu and cold medications and mouthwashes that contain alcohol may test positive for EtG or EtS. Even topical use of other products that contain alcohol — such as body sprays, insecticides and hand sanitizer — can result in a positive EtG/EtS test.
In 2011, researchers at the University of Florida examined 11 study subjects who were completely abstinent from alcohol to see whether or not the frequent use of hand sanitizer would affect urine levels of EtG and EtS. For three consecutive days, the research subjects applied hand sanitizer to their hands every five minutes — roughly the same amount a nurse would use during a typical workday. Nearly all subjects tested positive for EtG according to the study’s findings, which were published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology.
In a press release, lead researcher Dr. Gary Reisfield said the findings underscore a key problem with EtG testing. “We really cannot tolerate false positives. Falsely accusing someone of alcohol abuse can have potentially devastating effects personally and occupationally.”
In general, the liver processes one ounce of liquor or one standard drink per hour. If you consume more than this, the additional alcohol accumulates in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized. This is why consuming many drinks can result in high blood alcohol concentrations that lasts for several hours.
You may need a blood alcohol test if you are suspected of drunk driving and/or have symptoms of intoxication after an accident. These include:
Commonly known as breathalyzers, breath alcohol tests (BATs) are administered by a technician and results are available immediately. Among breathalyzers, Evidential Breath Testing devices (EBTs) are the gold standard. The results of an EBT can be legally used in a court case.
There are many factors that can affect the reliability of breathalyzers and possibly even result in false positives:
As with any other substance, there are many factors that can affect how quickly or slowly a person would feel the effects of alcohol. Generally, alcohol’s effects are felt within about 10–60 minutes. However, this can be slowed by many factors including gender, food consumed, other medications and genetics.
While there is variation from state to state, in most places you are considered legally intoxicated with a BAC of 0.8%. It can take up to six hours for your BAC level to drop from 0.08% to 0.00% and anything above 0.00% is illegal for anyone under 21.
A common guideline is that, after each typical drink, you should wait 45 minutes before attempting to drive.
There are many factors that influence how long it takes for a person’s body to process alcohol, including:
There are many myths about how to sober up faster like taking a cold shower or drinking coffee, but the only way to get the alcohol out of your system is to give your body time to metabolize it.
There are many factors that can influence the length of a hangover. Body weight and gender are important factors, with five to eight drinks for the average man and three to five drinks for the average woman being enough to cause some degree of hangover that can last up to 72 hours. The duration of a hangover depends on how much alcohol was consumed, dehydration, nutritional status, ethnicity, gender, the state of your liver and other medications.
There are many remedies marketed as “hangover cures,” but none have much evidence to support their use. It can help to stay hydrated and to avoid ingesting anything else that can further tax the liver, like “hair of the dog” — more alcohol — or Tylenol, as these can lead to swelling or liver failure.
If you drink consistently or heavily for days, weeks or longer, you may become physically dependent and experience uncomfortable or dangerous symptoms when you try to cut back or stop. This is called withdrawal.
Symptoms of withdrawal can range from mild to severe. Within six hours of stopping drinking, mild symptoms can appear:
Between 12–24 hours after your last drink, symptoms can progress to hallucinations or seizures. After 48 hours, symptoms can continue to progress even further to delirium tremens (DTs) with more vivid hallucinations and delusions.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, we can help. Contact The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake to learn about safe and effective alcohol detox and addiction treatment programs, what to expect and how to start treatment.
We offer inpatient, medical detox, intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization program (PHP) services based on your needs. Our 110-bed facility is located near Colorado Springs, with breathtaking vistas and scenic views. We are one of several facilities in the Advanced Recovery Systems (ARS) network and are also a member of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP). Start your healthier future today.
There’s a fine line between excessive alcohol consumption and an alcohol use disorder, and it’s not always easy to determine which side you’re on. If you’re concerned that drinking has become an addiction, consider the following online assessments. These tests can help you determine if you’re addicted to alcohol by evaluating your drinking habits. For the most accurate assessment, be completely honest with your responses. The tests are 100% confidential and free:
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake has a proven track record of providing caring and successful alcohol abuse treatment at our beautiful facilities in Palmer Lake, Colorado. Contact one of our team members today to learn how alcohol rehab can benefit you or your loved ones.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.