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Could I Be Allergic to Alcoholic Beverages?

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Updated June 03, 2014

Alcohol Allergy
Serge Krouglikoff Collection/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Question: Could I Be Allergic to Alcoholic Beverages?
Answer: 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, with allergies being only a small part of the causes of these reactions.

Allergic Reactions to Alcoholic Drinks
It is possible to experience allergic reactions from drinking alcoholic beverages. The alcohol, however, is not typically the reason for these reactions. 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
Some people, especially those with chronic urticaria and angioedema, may have an increase in their symptoms with the consumption of alcohol. In these people, an allergic reaction is not to blame; rather, alcohol may simply worsen the underlying disease process.

Sulfites
Sulfites are preservatives added to various foods in order to prevent spoilage. Sulfites are known to worsen asthma symptoms, and may result in hives and anaphylaxis in some people.

Histamine
Some alcoholic beverages contain histamine, which is produced by yeast and bacteria during the fermentation process. Histamine is the same chemical released by mast cells during an allergic reaction, and can cause symptoms of itching, hives, sneezing and wheezing. If a particular alcoholic beverage contains a large amount of histamine, many people would be expected to have symptoms after consuming it.

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. This may include 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.

Non-allergic Rhinitis
Some people experience 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. This would be classified as a form of non-allergic rhinitis.

Source:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The Buzz About Wine and Beer Allergy. Accessed October 20, 2007.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and Food Allergy Practice Parameters. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2006; 96:S1-68.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this site is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your physician for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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