Alcoholic Drinks May Trigger Asthma Attacks

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April 4, 2000 -- Some asthmatics learn the hard way that drinking alcohol can trigger the wheezing, coughing symptoms of an asthma attack. A new study lends credibility to that link, and suggests that chemicals, such as sulfite preservatives in wine, may be the cause of these attacks.

Of all the alcoholic drinks included in the study, "wines were clearly the major offenders," says Hassan Vally, BSc (Hons), author of the study in the March issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Vally is a researcher with the department of medicine at the University of Western Australia and the Asthma and Allergy Research Institute in Western Australia.

The basis for Vally's study was a questionnaire sent to members of the Asthma Foundation of Western Australia. More than 350 members were included in the study, ranging in age from 18 to 83 years, with an average age of 48.

They were asked when their asthma was diagnosed, how severe it was, what typically triggered attacks, and what asthma medications they were taking. They were also questioned about whether they had ever had an allergic, allergic-like, or asthmatic reaction to any alcoholic drinks. Specific drinks were listed: red and white wine, champagne, fortified wines (such as sherry and port), beer, and spirits (like brandy, whisky and vodka). A checklist of asthmatic symptoms was also included.

Overall, 43% of the respondents reported having allergic or allergic-like reactions to various alcoholic drinks. Thirty-three percent said alcohol had brought on asthma symptoms, with 26% saying asthma was the main adverse symptom they experienced after drinking.

Wines were the most frequent trigger, named by 38% of the respondents as causing allergic reactions and by 30% as causing asthma symptoms, the responses showed.

Red wine in particular was the biggest culprit, causing allergic reactions in 30% and asthmatic reactions in 24%. White wine caused allergy flare-ups in 26%, and asthma symptoms in 22%.

Asthma attacks triggered by drinking alcohol reportedly came on quickly (in less than an hour) and were of moderate severity. Women reported the most asthmatic reactions, as did people taking oral steroids, those who were young when they had their first asthma attack, and those who had visited an alternative health practitioner for asthma. Although the respondents reported numerous allergic symptoms associated with alcoholic drinks -- including coughing, itching, facial swelling, stomach upset, and eczema -- asthma was the adverse symptom most frequently reported.

"It's hard to conclude too much from the study based on a questionnaire ... because there are no objective data," says Benjamin Gaston, MD, who reviewed the study for WebMD. He is associate professor of medicine in allergy, asthma, and immunology at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlotte. "Having said all that, I think what they find is true and useful to know." He adds that asthma attacks and allergic reactions due to alcohol probably occur more often than previously thought.

The researchers note that, although attacks triggered by alcoholic beverages are usually not severe, their study shows that asthmatics should be cautious about drinking.

"There is a need for increased awareness ... of the potential for these drinks to trigger asthma," they write.

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