You have a beer after work. Maybe a glass of wine with dinner or a shot of bourbon when the mood hits. Suddenly, you break out in hives. Maybe you feel nauseous or start wheezing.
Something is going on, but it’s not necessarily an allergy to alcohol.
Allergies to alcohol are rare. Instead, the problem could be with another ingredient or chemical in your drink. This is often called alcohol intolerance.
If you have it, you may get:
- A red, flushed face
- Hot feeling
- A fast heartbeat or palpitations
- Low blood pressure
- Stuffy nose
- Stomach pain, which may include nausea or vomiting
- Trouble breathing
- If you have asthma, your symptoms get worse
In a few cases, alcohol intolerance can be a sign of a more serious problem. If you think you have it, talk with your doctor and find out what’s causing it.
What’s in My Drink?
Alcoholic beverages are made from complex mixtures of grains, chemicals, and preservatives that your body needs to break down.
If your body can’t do this well enough, you will have a reaction.
Common allergens in alcoholic beverages include:
- Egg protein (usually in wine)
- Seafood proteins
- Sodium metabisulphite
Red wine is more likely to cause a reaction than any other alcoholic drink. Beer and whiskey also can cause reactions because both are made from four common allergens: yeast, hops, barley, and wheat.
Who Is at Risk?
You may be more likely to have an intolerance to alcohol or allergic symptoms if:
- You're of Asian descent
- You have asthma or hay fever
- You’re allergic to grains or have other food allergies
- You have Hodgkin's lymphoma
Be careful drinking while you’re taking a medication. Check with your doctor to see if it’s OK to mix the two.
Take the Test
If you think alcohol is causing your reactions, talk to your doctor. To find out what’s going on, she will:
- Ask you about your family history. Much like allergies, alcohol intolerance can be passed down in families. She’ll ask if you have other relatives who have similar problems when they drink.
- Ask you about your symptoms
- Do a physical exam
- Do a skin prick test. It can show if you are allergic to an ingredient in alcoholic beverages. You’ll get a prick on your skin with a tiny bit of the substance you may be allergic to. If you are, you’ll get a raised bump in that spot.
- Test your blood
Your doctor also may recommend that you stop drinking all alcoholic beverages for a while. Then you can start again, perhaps trying just one of your go-to drinks at a time. If the reactions return with specific drinks, then you know which ones cause problems for you.
There is, of course, the remote possibility that you are allergic to alcohol. Symptoms of that include:
- Trouble breathing
- Stomach cramps
- Anaphylaxis, which is a severe reaction that can include a rapid, weak pulse, nausea, and vomiting. If you have this, call 911.
If you have an alcohol allergy, it doesn’t take much to trigger reactions. Two teaspoons of wine or a mouthful of beer is enough.