Knowing the difference between Allergies and Intolerances
While you may think you have one or the other, these conditions are inherently different. The Mayo Clinic defines alcohol sensitivity, also known as intolerance, as a genetic condition in which the body is unable to break down alcohol efficiently.
This is different from an alcohol allergy, which is an immune system response to a foreign substance which causes an excessive release of immunoglobulin E antibodies. This flooding of antibodies triggers different symptoms.
The symptoms of alcohol allergies and sensitivities can be similar, but range in severity. Sometimes you may even confuse the signs that you have alcohol allergy for alcohol intolerance because your symptoms are mild.
Folks with alcohol sensitivities can drink in small quantities with little to no immediate symptoms, but someone with alcohol allergies will feel the effects of their allergen quickly, and may require Antihistamines or medical attention.
While alcohol allergies are rare, their reactions can increase in severity with exposure to the allergen. The allergen is often an ingredient in the alcohol such as the Yeast, Hops, Barley, Rye, Wheat, and Gluten found in beer, or the Sodium metabisulphite (sulfites), Histamines, and Grapes found in wine.
Let’s be clear, allergies suck! But luckily, your body gives you some signs that point to alcohol allergy. For example, if you are drinking beer or wine and experience any of the below forms of discomfort, and then switch to something else that gives you no reaction – You, my friend, have an allergy. So be on the lookout for these tell-tale signs that you might be allergic to alcohol or wine.
Tell-tale Signs That You Might Be Allergic to Alcohol or Wine
Ever heard of “Red Wine Headache”? Well, it’s not just reds that can cause this skull splitting reaction in some people. There are many different allergen components in wine that could be to blame for your splitting headache. Sulfites, tannins, histamines, and prostaglandins in wine have all been attributed to headaches in wine drinkers. If you experience these splitting headaches after half a glass of wine, one of these components might be to blame.
These headaches can develop in a matter of minutes, and may be followed by flushing, early onset drunkenness, nausea, blood pressure falls, and – in some cases – you may blacking out. You may also find that there is a difference in how you feel with different wines. White wine is higher in sulfite content than red wine, and if you notice your headaches are much worse when you drink white wine, you may have a sulfite allergy. Red wine has more histamine than white wine and other alcohol, and – Sorry Ladies – women are more likely to have red wine allergy than men.
If your face beings to get puffy or you have difficulty swallowing or talking after consuming alcohol, you have an allergy. Swelling of the eyes, mouth (lips and/or tongue), nasal passages, and throat are common indicators of a histamine or sulfite reaction. Sulfites can cause some serious reactions in people, and swelling of the throat can be a sign of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction to an allergen that requires immediate medical attention. Popping an antihistamine might help clear up some of the symptoms, but bronchial swelling leads to our next allergy indicator.
Shortness of Breath or Wheezing
Experiencing respiratory distress from a small amount of alcohol is a classic sign of an allergy reaction. Allergens like sulfites are often the culprit, and trigger asthmatic symptoms in folks with asthma. If you’ve never experienced wheezing before, you are in for a treat! Wheezing is a whistling or rattling sound in the lungs when you breathe, accompanied by shortness of breath from obstructions in your airway and coughing.
If you are curious, this is what Wheezing sounds like. This reaction can be very dangerous, and if it doesn’t clear up after taking an antihistamine or bronchodilator, get medical attention right away. Stay away from any type of alcohol that causes this reaction, for obvious reasons.
Hives, Flushing, and Other Rashes
Epidermal reactions are quite common allergy symptoms, especially with yeast, sulfite and histamine reactions. Facial redness is usually a sign of ALDH2 deficiency, meaning you can’t metabolize alcohol. Some call this the “Asian Flushing Response“. However, blotchy redness or flushing, accompanied by rapid heart rate, can also be a marker of sulfur dioxide allergy.
Sulfur dioxide is used to preserve alcohol, and a lot of folks are allergic to preservatives. Breaking out in hives while consuming beer or wine can be a tell-tale sign of sulfite allergy. Luckily, there are sulfite free beers, but not so much with wine. Yeast is also a big player in eczematic reactions for many people. Folks with yeast-reactive eczema should find an alternative to beer, which is full of yeast.
Immediate Nausea or Vomiting
Experiencing abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea, after only one to a few drinks, is a marker of a histamine reaction in the gastrointestinal track. Histamines and gluten found in food and alcohol have been known to cause abdominal cramping. Alcohol itself irritates your stomach lining, but in cases where an allergen is present, your body may initiate a purge reaction. If you find yourself making a bee-line for the bathroom immediately after drinking beer or wine, every time, you’re gonna want to switch to liquor…or maybe just water.
If any of these sound like the symptoms you have after drinking, you’ll want to see an allergist. They can help you find out what allergen is causing the problem. That way you can move on to finding something else you can enjoy without the nasty side effects.