Could You Be Allergic to Alcoholic Beverages?

Alcohol Allergy
Alcohol can cause various reactions. Serge Krouglikoff Collection/The Image Bank/Getty Images

We’ve all enjoyed alcoholic beverages, and many of us have experienced the unpleasant side effects of enjoying these drinks a bit too much. But imagine if you couldn’t drink alcohol—not even a little—because you experience uncomfortable reactions as a result. There are many reasons for these reactions, most of which are not caused by allergies. 

Allergic Reactions to Alcoholic Drinks

You can experience an allergic reaction after drinking alcoholic beverages.

The alcohol content, however, is most likely not to blame for your symptoms. Another ingredient—such as grapes in wine, various grains in beers (such as hops, barley, rye, corn, or wheat), and the addition of yeast (for fermentation of sugars and generation of alcohol)—may be the cause. The symptoms of these reactions may be exactly like those with any other food allergy reaction.

Hives and Swelling. If you have chronic urticaria (hives) or angioedema (swelling in the deep layers of the skin, most often the face and lips), you may notice an increase in your symptoms after consuming alcohol. This does not mean you are allergic to beer, wine, or liquor, rather, alcohol may simply worsen your underlying condition. 

Sulfites. Sulfites are preservatives added to various foods in order to prevent spoilage. Sulfites are known to worsen asthma symptoms, and can cause hives and anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Histamine. Some alcoholic beverages contain histamine, a byproduct of yeast and bacteria fermentation. Histamine is the same chemical released by mast cells during an allergic reaction, and can cause symptoms of itching, hives, sneezing, and wheezing. If an alcoholic beverage contains a large amount of histamine, you may experience allergic symptoms after consuming it.

If you already have allergies, such as seasonal allergies, the increase of histamines may make your underlying, non-alcohol-related allergies worse. 

If you experience severe allergic symptoms after drinking alcohol, abstain from drinking and ask your doctor about medications you can take to ease symptoms or, in the case of severe reactions, rescue medications, such as an epinephrine injector, should an allergy-offending beverage accidentally be consumed. 

Non-Allergic and Flushing Reactions

Aldehyde dehydrogenase is an enzyme that helps break down alcohol after it is consumed. A deficiency of this enzyme can result in flushing reactions after consuming alcohol, including nausea and rapid heart rate. Such reactions can be confused for an allergic reaction, but they are actually more often due to this enzyme deficiency, which is most common in people of Asian descent.

Some people experience non-allergic rhinitis, which can include symptoms of nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing after the consumption of alcohol. This is likely due to the dilation of blood vessels in the nose, resulting in mucus production and nasal symptoms. 

Sources:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Alcohol Angioedema and Urticaria. 2014.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and Food Allergy Practice Parameters Update. 2014.

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