This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Robert Lefever, a world-leading addictions specialist.
You may know about the mental obsession for alcohol, but little is known about the physical allergy factor associated with it. Is there anything like being allergic to alcohol, just like any other food? Yes, alcohol allergy is for real. Although it is rare, it exists. And if you experience reactions after alcohol consumption, there are chances that you may be allergic to alcohol. Hence, understanding alcohol allergy symptoms, their causes, and treatment can help treat the condition promptly. To find all about alcohol allergy, stick to the very end.
What Is An Alcohol Allergy?
As the name suggests, alcohol allergy is an allergic reaction to alcohol. If you are not well aware of allergies or allergic diseases, allergies are several conditions that are caused when your immune system becomes hypersensitive to substances in the environment. These substances are called allergens that may be typically harmless for many people. Allergens are pollen, insects, dust mites, moulds, ticks, food, and some medications.
Some people are genetically predisposed to develop allergic diseases when exposed to these allergens. Hence, both genetic and environmental factors play a role. For example, when an allergen enters the body, immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE), part of the body’s immune system, bind to the allergen. These antibodies then bind to mast cells and trigger the release of histamine, which is an inflammatory chemical. That is how your body produces allergic responses to alcohol or any substance.
According to a report cited by the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), there is a link between high IgE levels in the body and high alcohol levels. However, the author doesn’t propose that alcohol causes allergies, but alcohol interacts with a component that involves an allergic response by the body.
How Common Is Alcohol Allergy?
There is limited data that can depict the prevalence of alcohol allergy. However, according to limited epidemiological data, alcohol allergy affects many people. And for those who experience alcohol allergy, even 1 ml of pure alcohol can cause severe rash, stomach cramps, difficulty breathing, etc.
Moreover, a survey of asthmatics showed that approximately 40% of individuals experience allergy-like symptoms after consuming alcohol, and 30-35% of individuals reported that their asthma symptoms got worse.
Theron G. Randolph M.D, a specialist in internal medicine, emphasised that alcohol allergy is due to the hypersusceptibility to foods in the alcohol or to chemicals entering the alcohol during the manufacturing process. Allergies to ethanol itself are infrequent.
He also found out that people who experienced physical distress after drinking beer or Bourbon were sensitive to corn, wheat, or both. This means that if you are experiencing some allergic reactions, this may respond to an ingredient in the drink. This ingredient can be red grapes, gluten, or preservatives like sulfites, etc.
Moreover, alcohol quickens the process of food absorption, which may also enhance sensitisation compared to the presence of such substances in non-alcoholic food. Similarly, acting as a solvent for food allergens, alcohol hastens the entry of allergens into the system.
What Are The Causes And Risk Factors Of Alcohol Allergy?
As mentioned earlier, allergy is the response of the body’s immune system to a perceived threatening substance. And alcohol allergy is just like any other food allergy because most people are allergic to different components in alcohol rather than the alcohol itself. Hence, the causes of alcohol allergy are also the same as those of other allergies.
Heavy consumption of alcohol makes the immune system weak. And a weak immune system can cause other alcohol-related disorders. Moreover, a weak immune system can make you prone to conditions with symptoms similar to those caused by allergies.
Host factors considered to be the risk for allergy are gender, heredity, race, and age, heredity being the most important, emphasising that allergies run in families. Although research has not yet identified the specific gene involved, genes make you predisposed to allergic diseases. And your body, more likely than others, see allergens as a threat and produce antibodies.
Active and passive smoking also increases the risk of allergic reactions. Studies have also shown that smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of allergies for the child. Your risk for alcohol allergy also increases if you have a disease called Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of lymph nodes.
Are Alcohol Allergies And Alcohol Intolerance The Same?
Alcohol allergy and alcohol intolerance are different. While alcohol allergy is the immune system’s response to one or more substances in alcoholic beverages, alcohol intolerance is due to issues with the individual’s digestive system.
When the body processes alcohol, acetaldehyde is produced, which is a toxic substance. If the enzyme that breaks down alcohol doesn’t work correctly, it doesn’t break down alcohol. As a result, acetaldehyde is accumulated in the bloodstream, which produces the symptom of alcohol intolerance.
In addition to differences in the underlying mechanisms, another difference lies in the severity of alcohol allergy symptoms and the symptoms of alcohol intolerance. Some allergies can merely be annoying and distressing. However, in extreme cases, an allergic reaction can lead to death. On the other hand, alcohol intolerance is not so dangerous.
Moreover, the enzyme deficiency can cause flushing reactions, including rapid heart rate, tummy discomfort, headache, feeling hot, drop in blood pressure, and nausea. Such reactions can be misunderstood as allergic reactions, but these symptoms are more common due to the deficiency of the enzyme.
Signs And Symptoms Of Alcohol Allergy:
Everybody’s biological make-up and body chemistry are different. Therefore, the response of an individual to alcohol varies greatly. Moreover, alcohol allergy symptoms also depend on the substance or allergen. Some common alcohol allergy symptoms are:
- Nasal congestion
- Sneezing spells
- Shortness of breath
- Facial swelling
- Itchy, raised, red rash
- Face, eyes, tongue, lips swelling
- Feeling sick
- Vomiting or diarrhoea
- Tummy pain
- Some people experience severe reactions, anaphylaxis, to alcohol allergy. It is a life-threatening medical emergency, and the individual can go into a shock. Its signs and symptoms are:
- Skin rash
- A drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- A rapid, weak pulse
How Is Alcohol Allergy Diagnosed?
If you experience allergy-like reactions after consuming alcohol and are concerned about alcohol allergy, talk to your doctor. The alcohol allergy is diagnosed through various tests, including:
Blood tests are done to test the presence of antibodies in the blood. As your body produces immunoglobulin E in response to allergens, the common types of blood tests such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay test or ELISA will detect the presence of immunoglobulin E.
As the name indicates, skin tests involve placing a small amount of allergen onto the skin. If the individual is allergic to that specific allergen, an allergic reaction will take place. There are the following three ways to conduct skin tests for the diagnosis of alcohol allergy.
- Patch test: skin patch test involves placing a solution-containing pad on the skin for a specific period.
- Intradermal testing: intradermal testing involves injecting a solution into the skin. The solution contains the allergen.
- Prick test: in the allergy prick test, the doctor applies the solution containing allergen and then pricks the skin using a needle.
Health care professionals conduct all the tests mentioned above with caution and careful preparation before the test. Moreover, the tests are carried out to identify the allergens. Hence, these should never be conducted by oneself because allergy reactions can be mild to severe and need immediate treatment.
After the skin tests, if a wheal of 3mm or larger or some other alcohol allergy symptoms appear on the skin, the test is considered favourable to that suspected allergen. Similarly, four times higher than normal levels of immunoglobulin E in the blood depicts the alcohol allergy.
Moreover, the doctor will ask about your alcohol allergy symptoms, family history of allergies, alcohol intolerance, and physical exam.
Management And Treatment Of Alcohol Allergy:
Unfortunately, there is no permanent cure for alcohol allergy. However, you can prevent and manage alcohol allergy symptoms. If alcohol allergy is diagnosed, you need to abstain from drinking it. Moreover, be careful while eating foods cooked with alcohol because you may not know about the substances that can cause allergies or what foods contain alcohol. Even some medications also have alcohol. Therefore, it is better to look for the ingredients before ingesting them. Similarly, avoid mouthwashes and beauty products that contain alcohol.
Some medicines are used to treat alcohol allergy symptoms. For example, for an allergic reaction, a doctor may prescribe you cetirizine, loratadine, or fexofenadine. In addition, certain allergy medications can make you sleepy, therefore, avoid driving or using any sort of machinery after taking medication.
Immunotherapy is another treatment that can benefit you if you have severe allergies and medications don’t work for you. A healthcare professional will introduce you to tiny amounts of allergens through a series of injections for an allergic reaction over time. Immunotherapy aims to desensitise the body to the allergen.
If you experience severe allergic reactions, epinephrine (EpiPen) may be prescribed. If you feel the need to use Epi-Pen or have trouble breathing, go to the ER immediately, as this can save your life.
Alcohol allergy is an allergic reaction to alcohol or other ingredients present in alcoholic beverages. You may be genetically predisposed to alcohol allergy, or your lifestyle and other factors may cause it. No matter what the cause is, if you experience allergic reactions after drinking alcohol, contact help4addction at 0203 955 7700 to get the proper diagnosis and treatment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does alcohol make allergic symptoms worse?
Can someone reverse an alcohol allergy?
How do you stop being allergic to alcohol?
Is alcohol allergy a life-threatening disease?
What are the ingredients in alcoholic drinks that may cause an allergic reaction?
Why does drinking alcohol make me sick?
Alcohol allergy is different from alcohol tolerance and can also be life-threatening. Alcohol allergy symptoms can be mild to severe. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential to avoid it. Don’t hesitate to seek help for alcohol allergy and contact help4addiction as soon as possible.