Alcohol Allergy

What Is an Alcohol Allergy?

An alcohol allergy is an allergic reaction to the consumption of alcoholic drinks or other products that contain alcohol as an ingredient, including mouthwashes, cough syrups, salad dressings, and tomato sauces. People can also develop allergies to the plant and fungal sources of alcoholic beverages, such as grapes, hops, barley, rye, wheat, and yeast. Alcohol allergies are rare but can have serious medical consequences, including death. A related condition, called alcohol intolerance, is more common. It is a metabolic disorder with unpleasant side effects, caused by the body’s inherited disability to properly break down and dispose of alcohol in the bloodstream.

Allergies are a common form of illness. It is estimated that as many as 50 million Americans may suffer from some type of allergy. Symptoms range from moderate to severe. In rare cases, allergies can lead to anaphylactic shock and death. If you or a loved one are dealing with allergy symptoms, see your Baptist Health physician for consultation and treatment.

Am I Allergic to Alcohol? What Are the Symptoms?

You might be allergic to alcohol if, after consuming a product with alcohol, you experience any or a variety of the following symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Ragged or labored breathing
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Dermatological reactions, such as itching or hives
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, face, or hands
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Light-headedness, disorientation, and loss of consciousness

What Is the Difference Between an Alcohol Allergy and Alcohol Intolerance?

Allergies occur when a person’s immune system reacts defensively to the presence within the body of a substance or chemical that most people find harmless (at least in the short run). An alcohol intolerance is different. It is a genetic condition in which the enzymes responsible for breaking down and expelling alcohol from the body operate ineffectively. The buildup of unconverted alcohol in the body can lead to:

  • Flushed skin (redness)
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Headaches and fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting

Other sources of alcohol intolerance include histamines, a chemical associated with immune responses, and sulfites, a product additive that limits yeast growth. Individuals with Hodgkin’s lymphoma can also exhibit symptoms of alcohol intolerance. Additional at-risk groups include asthma and hay fever sufferers, food allergy sufferers, and persons of Asian descent (the gene mutation behind alcohol intolerance appears to have originated in southern China).

What Are the Risks of Alcohol Sensitivity?

Besides symptom unpleasantness, the primary risk of an alcohol allergy is anaphylaxis, which is the sudden and severe onset of multiple allergy symptoms, and may result in difficulty breathing, accelerated pulse, dizziness, drops in blood pressure, a state of shock, and death. Anaphylaxis should be addressed as a medical emergency. It is treated by medical personnel with the administration of intravenous fluids and one or more epinephrine (adrenalin) injections. Allergy sufferers should carry an epinephrine autoinjector with them at all times.

Although alcohol allergies (as opposed to intolerances) are uncommon, they represent a serious threat to your health. If, after consuming alcohol, you experience any of the symptoms listed above, please see your physician right away.

How Do I Prevent an Adverse Reaction to Alcohol?

There is no cure for an alcohol allergy. The best way to prevent an adverse reaction is to avoid any item containing alcohol. This includes alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, and spirits), as well as other culinary or medicinal products with alcoholic content. In addition to carrying an epinephrine auto-injector, persons with an alcohol allergy should wear a medical-identification bracelet highlighting their condition.

If you are sensitive to an additive rather than alcohol itself, you may have options with regard to beverages. Red wines contain relatively few sulfites; white wines are low in histamines.

Learn More About Alcohol Allergy and Intolerance from Baptist Health

While alcohol allergies are rare, the consequences of this condition can be serious. Alcohol intolerance is more common. For diagnosis and prevention of either condition, schedule an appointment with a Baptist Health provider.


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