Do You Have an Alcohol Allergy?
You can hardly call alcohol a harmless substance, but in some people, alcohol-containing beverages may trigger a more serious reaction than a hangover the day after. In most cases, those reacting to alcohol experience the symptoms of intolerance. Although the terms “alcohol intolerance” and “alcohol allergy” are sometimes used interchangeably, a true allergy to alcohol is a rare and severe type of sensitivity. According to specialists, those diagnosed with an alcohol allergy should stay away from any alcohol-containing products.
Besides, even if you are not allergic to alcohol, certain ingredients found in some alcoholic drinks, such as wheat or yeast, may also cause you to develop allergy symptoms. Other potential allergens associated with alcohol include: grapes, barley, rye, and hops.
What Symptoms Does an Allergic Reaction to Alcohol Cause?
People who are truly allergic to alcohol can react even to small amounts of alcohol. Typical symptoms include: swollen face, throat, or other parts of the body; eczema, hives, or itchy skin; as well as itchy nose, mouth or eyes. Sometimes, alcohol causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. Respiratory allergy symptoms like nasal congestion, trouble breathing, or wheezing can result from exposure to alcohol, too. The symptoms like dizziness, drowsiness, or fainting are also possible with alcohol allergies.
In addition, if you have a severe allergy to alcohol, you are at risk of developing a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
You can become allergic to alcohol basically at any point in your life. In case you notice any of the signs of an allergic reaction, you should see your doctor as soon possible. Allergy specialists recommend that you should never leave your symptoms without any treatment. Otherwise, this may lead to serious and even fatal consequences.
Why Do Alcohol Allergies Develop?
An allergic reaction occurs when you are exposed to a particular trigger.
When you consume alcohol, your immune system recognizes it as a harmful substance and releases specific antibodies to protect your body. These antibodies are known as immunoglobulin E (IgE), and they are responsible for the symptoms you experience.
What Types of Alcohol Sensitivity Are There?
Alcohol may trigger different types of reactions. The immune system overreacts to alcohol in people allergic to it, while the digestive system has trouble processing alcohol in those with alcohol intolerance. Certain alcoholic drinks may also trigger a reaction in people with a histamine or sulfites intolerance. Another possible cause of a reaction to alcohol is a condition called Hodgkin’s lymphoma; however, it’s very rare.
What Are the Signs of Alcohol Intolerance?
There is an enzyme called ALDH2 (aldehyde dehydrogenase) in your body that is responsible for metabolizing alcohol. When alcohol gets into your liver, it’s broken down by ALDH2 into acetic acid, which is a main component of vinegar.
Some people, especially those of East Asian descent, have a mutation in the ALDH2 gene that has lead to ALDH2 deficiency. This condition often causes alcohol intolerance that prevents your body from breaking down the toxin acetaldehyde from alcohol.
A study published in 2010 found that the cause of the gene mutation associated with a ALDH2 deficiency dates back several centuries ago, when rice was domestically cultivated in southern China.
If your face and neck turn red and warm whenever you drink alcohol, it’s a common sign of an ALDH2 deficiency. This reaction is commonly called alcohol flush reaction. Other symptoms linked to alcohol intolerance include headache, tachycardia, nausea, and vomiting.
What Causes Histamine Intolerance?
Histamine is naturally released in your body, and it is also contained in various foods and drinks. For instance, histamines are often found in high levels in fermented products like wine (especially red wine), beer, cheese, sauerkraut, and smoked meats.
Usually, this chemical is broken down in your body by an enzyme called diamine oxidase (DAO). In some people, the active enzyme is not produced in sufficient amounts, which can make them react to histamines coming from foods and beverages.
Histamine intolerance causes symptoms similar to those of an allergy. People with histamine intolerance may experience nasal congestion, breath shortness, redness and itchiness of the skin, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
What If You Have Sulfites Intolerance?
Sulfites are compounds, such as potassium bisulfite or potassium metabisulfite, that are often found in beer and wine. They are used to preserve a product and to limit the growth of yeast. White sorts of wine usually contain more sulfites then red wine and beer.
Sometimes, people develop a sensitivity or intolerance to sulfites. In many aspects, reactions caused by sulfites resemble allergic reactions. In people with asthma, exposure to sulfites may trigger an asthmatic attack.
In addition, a chemical called sulfur dioxide can also cause reactions in some people, since they are closely related to sulfites.
What Is Hodgkin’s Disease?
Alcohol consumption may sometimes cause pain in people who have a Hodgkin’s disease.
Hodgkin’s disease is a type of lymphoma, which is a cancer of lymphatic system. One of the symptoms of this condition is painless enlargement of lymphatic nodes. However, drinking alcohol may cause these lymph nodes to become painful. Such a response is rare, and the exact cause of it is not clear.
How Is Diagnosis of Alcohol Allergy Made?
If you notice that alcohol causes you to have unpleasant or painful symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. In case an allergy is suspected, you will be referred to an allergist-immunologist, a doctor specializing in allergic disorders, for further examination and treatment.
First, the doctor will need you to provide information about your medical history and your symptoms. For example, you may be asked what alcoholic drinks tend to cause a reaction, what symptoms you have, when they first started, whether anyone in your family has an allergy, and whether you have any other health conditions.
Allergy testing is likely to be the next step, which may involve a skin prick test, an oral challenge test, or a blood test. In a skin prick test, your skin is pricked and then exposed to tiny amounts of allergen extract. Based on your skin reaction, the doctor will make a diagnosis.
An allergy or intolerance to alcohol can also be diagnosed using an oral challenge test, where you have to consume a small amount of the potential trigger. In some cases, your doctor may recommend that you conduct a blood test that measures a number of certain antibodies in your blood stream.
Keep in mind that any type of allergy testing should be performed in a medical office and supervised by a professional allergist. In case of an emergency, the doctor has to be ready to provide medical help.
How Can the Symptoms of Alcohol Allergy Be Treated?
An alcohol allergy is not curable. You may develop a severe reaction even after drinking a small amount of alcohol. Therefore, people who are truly allergic to alcohol should avoid alcohol in any amounts. Experts recommend always checking the ingredients lists of products you buy, as some foods may contain alcohol. When eating out, ask your server whether your meal contains any alcohol.
In case of sensitivity to some ingredient of certain alcoholic beverages, you can try switching to alternative options. Thus, if you are allergic to barley, which is typical for beers, you can drink wine or other barley-free beverages. Ask your doctor what’s best for you.
Mild allergy symptoms can be reduced with oral antihistamines available over the counter. However, a severe allergic reaction, such as anaphylaxis, must be treated with an immediate injection of epinephrine (adrenaline), and further follow-up care in an emergency department. If you have a severe alcohol allergy, your doctor may prescribe you to carry an epinephrine auto-injector, such as EpiPen or Auvi-Q, in case of exposure to alcohol.
If the symptoms you have after drinking alcohol are not related to an allergy, you may be recommended to avoid certain types of alcoholic drinks. Sometimes, you can ease your symptoms using over-the-counter or prescription medications.