How Long Does it Take to Sober Up?

An inebriated woman with closed eyes

If you’ve had a heavy night of drinking, you may be wondering “how long does it take to sober up?” but, unfortunately, there isn’t a standard answer. While adults typically process a unit of alcohol an hour, it really does depend on the individual and several other factors. This blog explores the sobering up timeline, how to measure a unit of alcohol, what factors influence how quickly a person can sober up, and the potential risks associated with heavy drinking.

What is a Standard Drink?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol use is common among Americans, with 84.1 percent of adults aged 18 or over-reporting they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. As drinking is so common in American lifestyles, many people don’t think to measure how much they’re drinking – unless they’re driving – and often don’t even know what constitutes a standard drink, or unit of alcohol.

A standard drink contains about 0.6 fluid oz or 14 grams of alcohol. In context, that looks like:

  • 12 oz of regular beer (5 percent alcohol) 
  • 5 oz of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 oz of distilled spirits (40 percent alcohol)
  • 8-10 oz of hard seltzer (around 7 percent alcohol)

Unfortunately, not all bars — or individuals drinking at home — measure drinks, meaning most people often consume more units of alcohol than they’re aware of. Drinking too much, according to NIAAA, can have negative impacts and increase your risk for several health and associated problems. But what exactly is too much?

What is Heavy or Binge Drinking?

Chronic alcohol abuse starts with binge drinking, heavy alcohol use, or high-intensity drinking before it gets to the stage of addiction (alcohol use disorder). These categories of drinking are defined by NIAAA as follows:

  • Binge drinking: drinking in a pattern that results in a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter. This consists of four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men, over a two-hour period
  • Heavy alcohol use (or heavy drinking): five or more drinks in a day, or more than 15 drinks per week for men, and four or more drinks a day, or eight or more drinks per week for women. 
  • High-intensity drinking: twice (or more) the thresholds for binge drinking, such as 10 or more drinks for men or eight or more for females.

What is Sobering Up?

To understand what sober means, or how long it takes to get sober, it’s helpful to first understand how alcohol impacts the body and how it is measured. As a central nervous system depressant (reducing stimulation to the central nervous system), it impacts all organs of the body, including your blood. Alcohol consumption can be detected in the blood by the measure referred to as blood alcohol concentration or blood alcohol content (BAC). The concentration of alcohol is determined by how quickly the person drinks, and the rates of absorption, distribution, and metabolism, according to NIAAA. 

BAC can be measured within 30 to 70 minutes of drinking, in several ways:

  • Blood test: can detect alcohol for up to 90 days after use
  • Urine test: can find alcohol use up to 24 hours after use
  • Breathalyzer: provides an instant BAC reading for 48 hours
  • Hair and fingernails: detects alcohol consumption up to a few months 

For the purposes of this article, sober means a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of zero. Varying BAC levels impact the body in several ways, altering mood, judgment, speech, and more. As you sober up, and the BAC reduces, so too do the effects of alcohol on the body, illustrated below.

  • BAC 0%: Sober
  • BAC 0.02%: altered mood, slight loss of judgment
  • BAC 0.05%: loss of inhibition, less alert, and impaired judgment
  • BAC 0.08%: reduced muscle coordination, less awareness, impaired judgment, and reasoning
  • BAC 0.10%: reduced reaction time, slurred speech, and slowed thinking
  • BAC 0.15%: altered mood, nausea and vomiting, loss of balance, and may lose some muscle control
  • BAC 0.15% to 0.30%: confusion, vomiting and drowsiness
  • BAC 0.30% to 0.40%: alcohol poisoning, a potentially life-threatening condition, and loss of consciousness
  • BAC Over 0.40%: A potentially fatal blood alcohol level with risks of coma, loss of breathing, and death

Factors That Affect Sobering Up

Before looking at the sobering up timeline, there are several factors influencing an individual’s ability to sober up, including:

  • Amount of alcohol consumed
  • Duration of drinking
  • Weight
  • Gender
  • Food consumption
  • Metabolism
  • Age
  • Overall health

Common Timeline for Sobering Up

While there are many factors impacting an individual’s ability to sober up, the average adult will feel the effects of alcohol for 12 hours, depending on BAC. On average, BAC reduces by 0.015 percent per hour – the equivalent of half to one drink per hour. So the timeline for sobering up largely depends on how much the person consumes, over what period of time, and the other factors influencing their ability to process the alcohol. 

Staying Safe While Sobering Up

There are several ways to reduce harm and keep yourself safe while both drinking and sobering up:

  1. Don’t drink alone and have an agreement with friends if you’re out together that you won’t leave alone
  2. If you’re feeling intoxicated, ensure you get a ride home with friends and there is someone staying with you to make sure you’re monitored while sobering up. It can be dangerous to pass out when intoxicated due to the increased risk of vomiting while asleep. They’ll want to keep you upright for a few hours while the alcohol wears off
  3. Hydrate when you get home 
  4. Leave a bucket or trash can next to your bed in case you feel nauseous and need to vomit 
  5. Don’t take medication, like sleeping pills, when you’ve been drinking
  6. If in doubt, seek emergency care by calling 911 or asking a friend to take you to the local emergency room.

Why You Should Be Aware of Heavy Drinking Risks

It’s important to know about what constitutes heavy drinking because you could be at increased risk of 

  • Impacts of high blood alcohol concentration (BAC): high BAC leads to reduced inhibitions, memory problems, slurred speech, confusion, motor impairment, coma, breathing problems, difficulty concentrating, and even death
  • Car crashes and other accidents: every day 37 people die in drunk driving crashes and 62 percent of fatalities involve alcohol-impaired drivers
  • Unsafe sexual behavior: due to reduced inhibitions, alcohol consumption is associated with a higher risk of engaging in unprotected sex – that risk increases by 5 percent per 0.1mg/ml increase in BAC
  • Sexual assault: 43 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the survivor and 69 percent by the perpetrator
  • Suicide: alcohol use is associated with a 94 percent increase in risk of completed suicide
  • Homicide: among homicide victims, nearly 40 percent had been drinking
  • Alcohol use disorder: defined as drinking in a pattern in which the person struggles to moderate drinking, despite the negative consequences to their health, commitments, and relationships
  • Certain cancers: moderate to heavy alcohol use is associated with an increased risk of cancer of the head and neck, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer.
  • Long-term health problems: including increased risk of a weakened immune system, stroke, digestive problems, learning and memory issues, social problems, and mental health disorders, among many other issues.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-953-3913 (Who Answers?) today to learn about your treatment options.

 

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