Alcohol Allergies – Signs & Symptoms

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An allergic reaction or intolerance to alcohol is the body's response to some of the components that are involved in the substance. The body reacts in a variety of different ways to all sorts of foods and drinks.

The reaction to alcohol is due to the unique way in which an individual processes certain ingredients or chemicals involved in the product. Most people who consume alcohol do not experience an allergic reaction.

However, some bodies are anatomically unable to digest or process alcohol due to how it is made, i.e., fermentation. 

Fermentation is turning fruit into wine or cider or cereals such as barley and rye into spirits. Through the process of fermentation, certain chemicals are produced.

The chemical name for alcohol is Ethanol (CH 3 CH 2 OH). The body will process and eliminate Ethanol through various means, i.e., urine, sweat, and breath.

Chemicals such as Histamine or Sulphites are produced or added during the fermentation of alcohol. Occasionally the body cannot process these chemicals, and an allergic reaction occurs.

The body can also encounter an allergic reaction due to certain products used in the making of alcohol.

An allergic reaction to alcohol differs from intolerance to alcohol as the latter is less severe than a reaction. Even though allergic reactions may be similar in some of their responses, they may be life-threatening.  

Ingredients in Alcohol that may trigger an allergic reaction or intolerance:

  • Hops
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Grapes 
  • Yeast
  • Wheat 

On occasion, the body may have an allergic response to any of the following ingredients. An allergic reaction is rare, but if one is experienced, the advice may be to avoid alcohol altogether.

These ingredients are food types. It may be an allergy to a specific food type that is to blame.

It may be helpful to complete a food chart and record any adverse reactions to food types. This may help eliminate the certain food type contained within alcohol that is causing the reaction.

This may also be helpful if a desire to stop drinking altogether doesn’t exist.

After investigation, the harmful product can be removed and replaced with something else, i.e. Beer containing yeast may be substituted for wine (typically a yeast-free product). 

A food intolerance test can also be taken to assist in the elimination of the problem product found within certain alcoholic beverages.

Chemicals in alcohol that may trigger an allergic reaction:

  • Histamine
  • Sulphites

Histamine is a common word as many hay fever sufferers, for example, may take antihistamine tablets to counteract the symptoms attached to hay fever, i.e. runny or blocked nose, itchy eyes and skin.

An allergic reaction to the histamine in alcohol is not uncommon to that of a hay fever sufferer. 

The food and drinks industry produces many fermented products. If the body that naturally produces an enzyme known as Diamine Oxidase DAO to break down histamine is running low, then a reaction may occur.

Those who drink red wine may report a wheeze or red face. For example, this may be attributed to histamine in red wine.

Some symptoms of an allergic reaction to alcohol:

  • Itchy skin and skin reactions
  • Itchy eyes, nose and mouth 
  • Wheezing, difficulty with breath
  • Swelling of the throat or other areas
  • Diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting
  • Abdominal pains
  • Feeling lightheaded or losing consciousness

These are just some of the symptoms that may occur. These symptoms are uncomfortable and a critical indicator that the body reacts in an allergic way to alcohol.

Many of these symptoms cross over to other conditions. A medical practitioner can help the sufferer understand if these are alcohol-related.

Here are some examples:

  • Itchy skin and redness may be connected to genetics or interactions with other medicines being consumed, i.e. antibiotics. 
  • Itchy eyes, nose and mouth, can be due to seasonal or environmental allergies.
  • Wheezing and difficulty with breath can be related to asthma, anxiety, chest infection, overweight, or smoking.
  • Swelling of the throat can be related to swollen glands or throat infection.
  • Excessive alcohol use can cause diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting, stomach flu, anxiety or food poisoning.
  • Feeling lightheaded can be due to a lack of food, dehydration, low blood sugar or anxiety.

To eliminate any doubt or confusion, seek medical clarification as any of the ‘other’ reasons cited for these symptoms may be an indicator that an underlying condition is present.

What is an allergic reaction?

An allergic reaction is when the body reacts in an unfamiliar or negative manner to a particular substance or chemical.

The body will immediately want to repel the substance however may not be able to; hence the symptoms above will occur.

Take an allergic reaction to nuts, for example. If allergic to nuts, anaphylaxis can occur. This is a dangerous reaction to the nut product, which may be life-threatening to the consumer.

If the correct adrenaline anti-injector is not administered immediately, the person can become unconscious.

An allergic reaction to alcohol can create the same symptoms of an anaphylactic shock, and if this occurs must be treated as a medical emergency.

In this example, the body is triggered by the nut consumed, and due to its hypersensitivity to the product, adverse symptoms occur. 

Alcohol Allergy Test

If the consumer believes they have an allergic reaction to alcohol or a product in alcohol, they can request a skin prick test, or a blood test and physical examination.

After stopping drinking alcohol for some time, another way to test if there is an allergy to a certain product is to re-introduce different types of alcohol to see if a reaction occurs. 

However, if a person is highly allergic and displays excessive adverse reactions to alcohol, this can incur risks of another ‘outbreak.’ 

Displaying Symptoms – I am allergic or intolerant?

Some people will display mild symptoms common to those listed above, (i.e. red face or itchiness) and not the extreme symptoms that may lead to hospital admission or appointment with the GP.

Mild reactions to some or one of the alcohol components may not encourage the consumer to want to stop drinking altogether.

If this occurs on occasions switching the type of drink to see if these reactions still happen when introducing a new brand may be recommended.

It is not recommended to self-diagnose if worried about any of the above symptoms. Always consult a medical professional for an accurate prognosis.

If symptoms are severe, then the sufferer may have had an allergic reaction to alcohol. This can be life-threatening, and alcohol use is usually not recommended in any form by a medical professional.

Treatment of alcohol intolerance 

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for alcohol intolerance (as one size does not fit all). The use of an antihistamine prescribed by a G.P. may reduce some of the symptoms.

The use of over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen will not counteract the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

But they may reduce headaches or abdominal pain; however, care must be taken as these can aggravate any underlying problems. 

However, if displaying adverse reactions to alcohol and struggling to stop drinking, Residential Rehab Detox and Treatment may support eliminating alcohol and movement towards an alcohol-free lifestyle. 

Abbeycare offers a specialised 28 Day programme inclusive of detox to help alcohol-specific substance use disorder.

28 Day Specialised Recovery Programme

The 28 Day programme has been created to ensure the participant has a full recovery experience by attending to the many therapeutic interventions. 

These tried and tested approaches use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy CBT, Motivational Enhancement Therapy MET and the 12 Steps to bring about a complete and robust change of thinking and behaviour conducive to long term sobriety and freedom from active addiction.

Detox

Detox is catered to the individual and their presenting condition. 

The specialist medical doctor at Abbeycare will review the ‘assessment’ and ‘medical summary notes’ of the potential resident. 

Then after the initial conversation between Doctor and the Client, detox will be agreed upon. 

Detox lasts between 7 to 14 days.

Detox is usually administered three times per day and is tapered off gradually:

  • Assessment
  • Medical Summary Report
  • Conversation with specialist addiction Doctor
  • Prescription i.e. Detox regime begins
  • Detox finishes 

If interested in stopping the use of alcohol in a safe and professional environment, Abbeycare can help you.

Call our free 24/7 Helpline on 01603 513 091, or fill out the form below to speak to a trained recovery counsellor. 


About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Pete has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. To read more about Pete visit his LinkedIn profile.