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Alcohol Intolerance: Allergies to Alcohol

Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

If you’ve ever wondered if you’re allergic to alcohol, the short answer is that you’re probably not. Maybe a drink or two gives you red patches, even hives. Maybe you experience headaches, or heartburn, or nausea. Chances are it’s either alcohol intolerance or an allergy to a component of an alcoholic drink. Both will be discussed at length, and the rare alcohol allergy will also be touched upon. However, regardless of what’s making you feel off, consult your doctor immediately to address your personal issues. (Then read this article, as it too should prove helpful!)

Alcohol Intolerance

Also known as acute alcohol insensitivity, alcohol intolerance involves having a genetic condition that causes the body to be unable to efficiently break down alcohol. This leads to unpleasant symptoms, most commonly flushing skin and/or stuffy nose. There are, however, many more symptoms that can occur if someone with alcohol intolerance consumes alcoholic beverages. They include but are not limited to:

  • Redness and/or flushing of the skin, hives
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Heartburn
  • Fast heartbeat, palpitation
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Trouble breathing

The type of alcohol that’s in the adult beverages all of us know and some of us love is called ethanol. It contains a metabolite called acetaldehyde, which is able to be broken down by the majority of human bodies. Those with alcohol intolerance who drink will build up acetaldehyde, and likely experience one or more of the above symptoms.

Allergies to Drink Components

There is a rather wide range of alcoholic beverage types, all of which are made from complex mixtures of grains, chemicals, and preservatives. Each time we consume a drink, we’re asking our bodies to break down all the ingredients therein.

To make a complete list of ingredients in all alcoholic beverages is futile, especially today during a time of craft beers that use just about anything for flavor. Yet even simple liquors can contain a plethora of ingredients. Whiskey can contain barley, corn, rye, and/or wheat. However, here is a list of the more commonly found ingredients in the more common alcoholic beverages:

  • Barley
  • Wheat
  • Yeast
  • Hops
  • Rye
  • Egg proteins
  • Gluten
  • Grapes
  • Histamines
  • Seafood proteins
  • Sulfites (including the preservative sodium metabisulfite, found in beer and wine)

Also, read your labels! Especially craft beer drinkers! Brewers are using everything from oranges to pickles, from algae to peppercorns, in beer today. The symptoms of an allergic reaction to a component of an alcoholic beverage can mirror those of alcohol intolerance.

Am I at risk?

Regarding either alcohol intolerance or an allergy to ethanol, the symptoms will very likely occur every single time alcohol is consumed. Therefore, if you know that you experience one or more of the aforementioned symptoms upon drinking, stop. Quit drinking immediately, contact your doctor, and let him or her know what’s going on.

That being said, the risk for alcohol intolerance is higher if you’re of Asian descent, and also if you have a history of asthma, hay fever, or of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If you’re allergic to any type of grain, or have preexisting food allergies, your risk of having an allergic reaction to an alcoholic beverage increases.

Also, this should be common sense already, but refrain from drinking while taking medication, or at the very least, check with your doctor to see if a drink or two will be ok on the meds. Not only is combining medication and alcohol generally unsafe, it can also produce symptoms similar to those of alcohol intolerance and/or allergic food reaction.

Ethanol Allergy

As stated, a very small number of people are actually allergic to ethanol. However, it does happen. Symptoms are yet again similar to those mentioned but can also include anaphylaxis – an extremely severe allergic reaction with rapid onset. Symptoms of anaphylaxis itself include itchy rash outbreak, swelling, shortness of breath, vomiting, lightheadedness, and/or low blood pressure. If you or someone you’re with is AT ALL showing any signs of anaphylaxis, dial 911.

That being said, if you believe it to be ethanol that’s causing you problems upon consuming alcoholic beverages, contact your doctor. He or she will likely inquire about your specific symptoms and about your family history. The doc might also perform a blood test, and/or a physical exam. If you want to get right to the root of the problem, (or rule allergy out entirely), schedule a skin prick test. It can show if you are allergic to an ingredient in alcoholic beverages. You’ll get a tiny injection of the substance you may be allergic to. If allergic, your skin will bump-up slightly in that spot.

In Conclusion

There is only one surefire way to avoid alcohol intolerance or an allergic reaction to an adult beverage… don’t drink. To cause a reaction can take just a mere mouthful of beer or wine or liquor or whatever it may be. Talk to your doctor about the best practice for you, most especially if you’re experiencing unpleasant symptoms from small amounts of alcohol.

Also, if you experience allergic reactions to anything food or drink based, it can’t be understated how important it is to read the labels of what you consume. Nowadays there is a wide spectrum of ingredients used to make alcoholic beverages. Be careful, refrain from drinking if possible, and be aware of any and all symptoms that you may experience.

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