Put in its simplest terms, this is a significant adverse and sometimes fatalphysiological reaction to alcohol or ethanol. Although it is relatively rare, many people mistakenly believe they are allergic to alcohol based on the following symptoms: nausea, flushed skin, headaches and loss of physical and mental acuity. In reality, these symptoms are generally indicative of either characteristicbiological reaction to alcohol consumption, or the inability to tolerate certain ingredients in alcohol.
The causes of alcohol allergies
For someone with a bona fide allergy, a sip of alcohol is enough to trigger a noticeable reaction. However, researchers are still baffled as to why this happens, since the body naturally produces minimal amounts. Having said that, it is interesting to note that serious reactions to alcohol are sometimes mistaken for allergies when the cause is actually a type of cancer called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that affects the lymph nodes.
Other types of foods or food products known to cause an alcohol allergy include:
- Food marinades
- Tomato puree
- Overripe fruit that has fermented
- Cough syrup
In general, doctors identify an allergy based on the production of antibodies. Antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) create the allergic reaction in the body,along with common allergic reaction symptoms. Doctors also use skin and blood tests gauge individual immune system responses to certain allergens.
Alcohol allergy symptoms
The symptoms of an alcohol allergy include:
- Trouble breathing
- Stomach pain or cramps
- Anaphylaxis (including rapid, weak pulse, and nausea)
With respect to anaphylaxis, it is important to note that this is a potentially life threatening condition characterized by rapid onset – often within a few seconds or minutes that must be addressed immediately. If you experience this or witness someone experiencing it, it is crucial to call 9-1-1 and administer first aid, and any applicable emergency medicine available.
Is an alcohol allergy treatable?
Technically, there is no “cure” for alcohol allergy. In other words, there is no way to prevent it other than to avoid drinking altogether. Furthermore, the only treatment currently available is aimed at the alleviation of symptoms manifested during allergic episodes. Depending on the symptoms presented, these treatments may include medicine to help with breathing, address stomach issues or soothe rashes.
What is the difference between alcohol allergy and alcohol “intolerance?”
The main difference between an alcohol allergy and an inability to tolerate or heightened sensitivity to certain ingredients in alcohol is type of reaction produced.
Generally speaking, a hypersensitive or dysfunctional immune system causes alcohol allergies. On the other hand, intolerance stems from the digestive system.
Symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:
- Red, flushed face
- Increased heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Nausea or vomiting
- Exacerbated asthma
Interestingly, people of Asian descent are more susceptible to alcohol intolerance than people in other ethnic groups. This is because of a genetic variant associated with the ancient domestication of rice in southern China.
In most people, an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) turns ethanol into acetic acid (a primary compound in vinegar) within the liver. In people of Asian ancestry there may be a less-active variant of ALDH2, making it more difficult for them to properly digest alcohol. This condition, called ALDH2 Deficiency, is a recognized cause of alcohol intolerance.
Alcohol ingredients that may cause some sort of reaction
You may experience symptoms of alcohol intolerance if you are actually allergic to:
- Gluten – because barley, wheat, hops, and rye are often used to make beer, vodka, whiskey, gin, and bourbon.
- Histamines – which are found in red wine, and produced by the yeast in some types of alcohol.
- Grapes – which rarely contain proteins that can trigger reactions after the consumption of wine, champagne, Armagnac, cognac, vermouth, port, pre-mixed martinis, wine coolers, and some premium vodkas.
- Fining agents – such as egg, milk, or fish proteins used in the removal of small particles from wine.
- Sodium metabisulfite – which are also known as additives 220 and 221. Used as preservatives in beer and wine since ancient times, they are known to trigger asthmatic episodes in about 10 percent of people who suffer from asthma.
- Tree nuts – this is because some bourbons and whiskeys are fermented in oak (or other tree) barrels, which are known to trigger reactions. Many distillates and extracts also contain nuts.
Help coping with alcohol allergies
Because someone suffering from an alcohol allergy must refrain from drinking entirely in order to remain healthy, they may need help to do so. If an alcohol allergy affects you or a loved one, contact us to learn more about how we can help.
Featured image credit: DLdoubleE [Public domain]