Alcohol is a depressant that has a short life span in the body. Once alcohol has entered your bloodstream, your body will begin to metabolize it at a rate of 20 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) per hour. That means that if your blood alcohol level were 40 mg/dL, it would take about two hours to metabolize the alcohol.

Read on to learn more about alcohol’s life cycle in the body and the important factors to consider.

Alcohol is metabolized at a constant rate, but some people may feel the effects of alcohol for longer amounts of time. That’s because blood alcohol concentrations can vary among people and situations. Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) refers to the amount of alcohol in your blood in relation to the amount of water in your blood. For example, if two people each have blood alcohol levels of 20 mg/dL, the alcohol will metabolize in about an hour in each person, but their BACs can be very different.

Numerous factors can affect BAC and how you react to alcohol, including:

  • age
  • weight
  • drinking alcohol on an empty stomach
  • medications
  • liver disease
  • drinking many drinks in a short period of time, which is also known as binge drinking

It’s also important to know how much alcohol is in your drink, because that will determine how long it takes to metabolize your drink. For example, some beers have a higher alcohol content, which affects how much alcohol you’re consuming from one drink.

The following are general estimates for how long it takes to metabolize different alcoholic beverages, though these times will vary depending on the amount of alcohol in the beverage:

Type of alcoholic beverageAverage time to metabolize
small shot of liquor1 hour
pint of beer2 hours
large glass of wine3 hours
a few drinksseveral hours

There are certain steps you can take to help reduce the effects of alcohol.

  • Food may help your body absorb alcohol.
  • Water can help reduce your BAC, though it will still take one hour to metabolize 20 mg/dL of alcohol.
  • Avoid caffeine. It’s a myth that that coffee, energy drinks, or any similar beverages alleviate intoxication quicker.

Read more: Is it safe to drink alcohol while taking acetaminophen? »

When you consume alcohol, it first enters the digestive system. Alcohol isn’t digested like food and other drinks, however. About 20 percent of the alcohol from a single drink moves directly to the blood vessels. From there, it’s carried to your brain. The rest of the 80 percent goes to your small intestine, then directly to your bloodstream.

The final step of the alcohol life cycle is its removal from the body through the liver. Any issues with your liver can slow down this process.

Urine tests can detect alcohol long after you’ve had your last drink. These tests look for traces of alcohol metabolites. The average urine test can detect alcohol between 12 and 48 hours after drinking. More advanced testing can measure alcohol in the urine 80 hours after you drink.

Breath tests for alcohol can detect alcohol within a shorter time frame. This is about 24 hours on average. A small machine called a breathalyzer measures your BAC. Any number above 0.02 is considered unsafe for driving or other safety-based tasks.

Alcohol can stay in your hair for up to 90 days. It can also temporarily be detected in saliva, sweat, and blood.

TestHow long after drinking can it detect alcohol?
urine12–48 hours
breath24 hours
hair90 days

There’s a misconception that tracking the amount of alcohol you drink and the time your body takes to get rid of it can help keep breast milk safe. No amount of alcohol is safe to drink when you’re breastfeeding. Babies who are exposed to alcohol are at risk for decreased motor skills and other developmental delays.

While the Mayo Clinic says that alcohol takes a few hours to clear breast milk on average, the process varies in the same way as it does for women who aren’t breastfeeding.

If you do drink alcohol while breastfeeding, consider the following ways to keep your baby safe:

  • breastfeed before you have a drink
  • pump extra milk ahead of time so that you can feed your baby with expressed milk
  • wait 2-3 hours after a shot or a 12-ounce glass of beer or wine before breastfeeding again

Alcohol poisoning is an emergency medical condition. It occurs when a large amount of alcohol is consumed and your body can’t break it down quickly enough. Binge drinking is the most common cause of alcohol poisoning.

Symptoms include:

  • vomiting
  • reduced blood temperature
  • slower breathing
  • passing out

Oftentimes, a person with alcohol poisoning passes out before they realize what’s happened. If you suspect alcohol poisoning in a friend or loved one, call your local emergency services right away. To prevent choking from vomit, turn the person on their side. Never leave a friend with alcohol poisoning by themselves.

Learn more: Understanding why blackouts happen »

The quicker you seek help, the more likely you are to minimize potentially fatal complications, such as:

  • cardiac arrest
  • brain damage
  • seizure
  • asphyxiation
  • extremely low blood pressure

The rate that alcohol can stay in your system depends on a variety of factors. The bottom line is safety and moderation. Keep your consumption to a few drinks per week, and avoid binge drinking. Also, be sure to have a ride lined up if you are drinking away from home. Even if you are below the legal limit, it’s never safe to drive with any amount of alcohol consumption.