Alcohol is mainly broken down by the liver, which can metabolize roughly 1 standard drink per hour for men. Factors such as age, weight, gender, and amount of food eaten can affect how fast the body can process alcohol. The rate of alcohol metabolism cannot be increased by sleeping or drinking water.
Although alcohol passes through the digestive system, it does not undergo extensive digestion within the digestive tract in the same manner as food. When it reaches the upper gastrointestinal tract, a significant portion is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the tissue lining of the stomach and small intestines. Once in the bloodstream, it is carried throughout the body and travels to the brain.1
The absorption process may be somewhat slowed when there is food in the stomach. Food can absorb alcohol, block it from coming into contact with the stomach lining, or slow its transit from the stomach into the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine), where it otherwise is very rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.1
A healthy person will usually feel the effects of a drink within 15 to 45 minutes.1
Most men with little to no tolerance will begin to show some signs of intoxication when their blood alcohol level (BAC) reaches 0.05%, and their ability to drive will be significantly impaired at 0.07%. At 0.10%, they will be clearly intoxicated.2
A woman who weighs 150 pounds will reach a BAC of 0.1% (intoxication) if she consumes about 4 drinks in an hour.2
The higher your BAC, the more likely you will be to display signs of intoxication, which include:3
People who are drunk are also more at risk for:3
Alcohol is primarily broken down in the liver through the actions of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. On average, the liver can metabolize 1 standard drink per hour for men, or about 0.015g/100mL/hour (i.e., a reduction of blood alcohol level, or BAC, by 0.015 per hour). In addition to liver processing, about 10% of alcohol is eliminated through sweat, breath, and urine.1
A standard drink is defined as:4
Factors that may influence how fast alcohol is broken down include:5
The breakdown and elimination of alcohol cannot be sped up by drinking water or sleeping, and neither coffee nor a shower will sober you up faster. They might make you more alert, but they will not eliminate alcohol from your blood. As long as your rate of consumption is greater than your rate of elimination, your BAC will continue to rise.1
The amount of time alcohol can be detected in your system depends on the type of test used.
Alcohol overdose, or alcohol poisoning, can be fatal. You can overdose when there is a high enough amount of alcohol in your system to cause life-supporting functions such as breathing or heart rate to dangerously slow or shut down.4
As your BAC rises, you may begin to feel more negative effects of intoxication and your risk of overdose increases: 4
Symptoms of an overdose include: 4
Your risk of overdose increases if you binge drink which, by one definition, entails consuming 4 drinks in 2 hours for a woman or 5 drinks in 2 hours for a man. Extreme binge drinking is drinking 2 or more times the binge drinking thresholds. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short time greatly outpaces the liver’s ability to clear alcohol from the body and leads to a rapid increase in BAC. 4
The risk of overdose may become even greater if a person mixes alcohol with opioid or sedative-hypnotic medications, such as painkillers, sleep medications, or anti-anxiety drugs. These drugs also suppress breathing, and combined with alcohol, these effects are intensified and can lead to an overdose with even moderate levels of alcohol. 4
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 14.5 million people age 12 or older had an alcohol use disorder in the U.S. in 2017. This figure represents 5.3% of all people in this age group. Alcohol-related deaths are the third-leading cause of preventable death in the country, with about 88,000 people dying each year from liver failure, overdose, drunk driving, and other accidents.5,6
Knowing more about how alcohol is metabolized and keeping track of your likely blood alcohol levels can help you prevent unintended over-intoxication and accidental death from alcohol poisoning. Understanding the dangers of alcohol can also help avoid a cycle of growing tolerance, physical dependence and, ultimately, a compulsive pattern of problematic alcohol use that culminates in addiction development.
. Bowling Green State University. Alcohol Metabolism.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2006). Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Overview of Alcohol Consumption.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
. United Kingdom National Health Service. (2018). How long does alcohol stay in your blood?
. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2013). Drug Testing: A White Paper of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.