How does alcohol affect allergies?
People who experience discomfort, such as stomach cramps, hives, or other unusual symptoms, after drinking alcohol may have one of the following:
- allergic symptoms due to immune system problems that result from alcohol consumption
- alcohol intolerance due to digestive issues
- allergic reactions or an intolerance to ingredients other than alcohol, such as the histamines in red wine and the gluten in beer and some hard liquors
- worsening allergy symptoms due to the effects of alcohol
How to tell if you are allergic to alcohol itself
Cough syrup can contain alcohol.
A genuine alcohol allergy is very specific and rather rare.
Although anyone who drinks excessively may experience negative reactions that likely are not an allergy, people with a true alcohol allergy can develop symptoms after drinking extremely small amounts.
The symptoms of alcohol allergy can be very serious. They include:
- difficulty breathing
- pain in the abdomen and stomach
Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction. Some signs of anaphylaxis include swelling, itching, tightening of the throat and mouth, a weak or rapid pulse, fainting, shock, and loss of consciousness.
Drinking alcoholic beverages is not the only way that a person can come into contact with alcohol. For this reason, people with this condition should use caution and read labels before using:
- salad dressings
- cough syrup
- tomato sauces and purées
Just as grapes can become wine, table fruit that becomes too ripe might contain enough alcohol to cause a reaction in someone with an alcohol allergy.
How common is alcohol allergy?
Alcohol allergy is very rare. In fact, the body produces alcohol on its own.
Alcohol intolerance is more common than a true allergy to alcohol. In fact, one study found that 7.2 percent of participants reported experiencing "allergy-like symptoms after drinking wine."
However, only two of the 68 participants have a medically diagnosed allergy. This figure represents people whose symptoms are traceable to what the manufacturers made the product from and its production process, not the alcohol itself.
Genuine alcohol allergies, in which people only react to the alcohol, are much less frequent.
Alcohol allergy vs. alcohol intolerance
Problems in the immune system cause an alcohol allergy to develop, while genetic problems in the digestive system tend to cause alcohol intolerance. These problems make it difficult for the body to break down alcohol properly.
People with alcohol intolerance react quickly to consuming alcohol. Two common symptoms are facial flushing, in which the skin on the face quickly turns red, and nasal congestion.
Other symptoms include:
Tips to reduce negative reactions
A medical identification bracelet alerts medical professionals to a person's allergies or existing conditions.
At present, there is no cure for a genuine alcohol allergy. The best way to prevent a reaction is to simply avoid alcohol.
People with an alcohol allergy should exercise caution when eating or drinking anything that they have not prepared themselves.
When eating out, they should make a point of asking about ingredients to make sure they do not contain alcohol, because even a small amount can cause a reaction.
People who are allergic to alcohol should manage their allergies as the very serious health conditions they are by:
- developing an emergency action plan
- wearing a medical identification bracelet
- learning how to eat out safely
- carrying an epinephrine autoinjector and knowing how to use it in case of accidental exposure
However, for people who are reacting to other ingredients in wine, tracking what they drink and their reactions may make it possible for them to enjoy some alcoholic beverages in moderation.
Those who notice an increase in their asthma symptoms after drinking alcoholic beverages, especially wine, might be reacting to potassium metabisulfite, a common preservative. It may also be due to histamines present in wine.
Choosing from beverages with the following characteristics, and always drinking in moderation, could help reduce the impact of allergic reactions:
- Select low-sulfite wines, which are commercially available.
- Opt for red wine, which usually has fewer sulfite preservatives than white, if sulfite is a problem.
- If the histamine in red wine is a problem, consider opting for white wine, which generally has a lower histamine content in comparison.
However, some people develop allergy-like symptoms, such as an itchy throat and nasal congestion, in response to the sulfites in wine.
For this reason, it is important for people to track their own symptoms and the triggers that cause them.
Allergy symptoms that alcohol makes worse
Researchers are exploring the complex relationship between alcohol and allergic reactions.
One report, which the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) cite, found a link between high levels of alcohol use and high IgE levels. IgE is an antibody that suggests that a person may have allergies.
People should note, however, that its authors do not propose that this means that alcohol causes allergies.
Instead, they state that the data indicate that alcohol interacts with a component involving the body's allergic response.
According to Dr. Phil Lieberman, who speaks on behalf of the AAAI, other studies have shown links between drinking alcoholic beverages and the following allergy symptoms:
- nasal blockages
- nasal discharge
Allergy types that alcohol worsens
Drinking alcohol may worsen allergy symptoms, including sneezing and coughing.
Consuming alcoholic beverages has links to increases in allergic reactions. The AAAI report that, in general, alcohol:
- lowers the amount of an allergen necessary to cause a reaction
- makes allergen-related allergic reactions develop more quickly
- increases the severity of allergic reactions
One older study in people with asthma found that over 40 percent of participants said that drinking alcohol prompted allergy or allergy-like symptoms. Also, 30–35 percent said that it made their asthma worse.
Drinking alcohol can also make cases of hives worse.
It is best for people who have gluten intolerance to avoid beer, unless it is gluten-free.
It is also important to remember that ingredients besides alcohol can cause some symptoms.
The following ingredients can cause allergy-like reactions in people sensitive to them:
Certain alcohol processing techniques can also trigger reactions for people in the following ways:
- Aging: Drinking alcohol that has aged in wooden barrels can prompt allergic reactions in people sensitive to tree nuts.
- Wine treated to improve clarity and color: Such wine may contain ingredients made from dairy, egg, or fish products and cause symptoms in people who are allergic or intolerant.
- Beer or wine treated with sodium metabisulfate: This process may cause reactions in people with asthma.
Having an allergy to alcohol itself is very rare, but it is fairly common for people who have other allergies or asthma to see an increase in their symptoms when they drink alcoholic beverages.
Paying attention to which beverages cause symptoms can help people manage their alcohol intolerance.
Those with a genuine alcohol allergy should completely avoid alcohol.