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  • Writer's pictureJessica Harris

Am I allergic to alcohol?

The question “Am I allergic to alcohol?” is not as absurd as it sounds! It is a real thing.

Even though it has been 4 months since the booze snooze officially ended, I find it interesting that I am still learning and experiencing new things about the role alcohol plays in my life. So far I have explored the possibility of going back to old habits in Falling Down the Rabbit Hole and reflected on how alcohol messes with my vision in I’m Not Drunk, I’m Totally Fine.

Recently, I had another experience that threw me for a loop and sent me to Dr. Google. I have been drinking in moderation and only having 1 or 2 drinks per week. The past two weekends my husband and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of red wine during our “Friday night date night at home”. Both weekends, while consuming the beverages, I got super congested and my nose got really stuffy. I figured I was coming down with a cold, but the next morning both weekends I woke up feeling fine and congestion-free. I got really curious about this and a quick internet search led me to Alcohol Intolerance.

No, I am not officially allergic to alcohol, but I may have become more intolerant post booze snooze.

Alcohol intolerance can cause immediate, uncomfortable reactions after you drink alcohol. The most common signs and symptoms are stuffy nose and skin flushing.

According to the the Mayo Clinic although not a true allergy, my alcohol intolerance might be my reaction to something in an alcoholic beverage — such as sulfates, preservatives, chemicals, grains, or histamine which is a byproduct of fermentation or brewing. A real allergy to alcohol is rare but it comes with severe symptoms. Even a little sip of alcohol can cause symptoms if you are truly allergic and even result in anaphylactic shock.

Alcohol intolerance can occur due to a genetic trait where your body doesn't have the proper enzymes to break down the toxins in alcohol. This is a particularly common genetic trait in Asians. The body gets flooded by a toxic by-product of alcohol called acetaldehyde. Typically the liver can break acetaldehyde down into a harmless non-toxic substance called acetate. But in the case of alcohol intolerance, the acetaldehyde continues to build-up in the body and brings on the uncomfortable symptoms.

In addition to a genetic predisposition, another thing that causes alcohol intolerance is a reaction to substances found in alcohol. I think in my case, my issues are more related to histamine or sulfite intolerance.

Our bodies have two enzymes that are supposed to break down the histamines ingested, but sometimes these enzymes don’t work as well as they should. A histamine build-up is more likely to cause nasal congestion, skin-flushing, and the so-called “red wine headache”.

Sulfites (sulfur dioxide or SO2) are naturally in alcohol like wine, beer, vermouth, sake, and others and help inhibit the harmful growth of bacteria in the beverage. SO2 plays an important role in preventing oxidation and maintaining a wine’s freshness. The symptoms of an intolerance to sulfates are similar to those caused by histamine intolerance. According the Very Well Health, this is why U.S. labeling laws require any food or beverage with sulfite concentrations greater than 10 parts per million (ppm) to be listed on the label using the term "contains sulfites."

Symptoms of alcohol intolerance according to might include

  • flushed face

  • diarrhea

  • hot feeling

  • headaches

  • heartburn

  • hives

  • rash

  • a fast heartbeat or palpitations

  • low blood pressure

  • stuffy nose

  • nausea

  • trouble breathing

  • worsening asthma symptoms.

During the last 4 months while on individual social outings and our summer vacation, I didn’t recognize having symptoms at the time. However, after reflecting on this more I now see that I have more symptoms from the list above than I thought when I consulted Dr. Google for the stuffy nose issue. During vacation this summer when I was drinking greater quantities of alcohol I got a strange rash on my feet and the tops of my feet itched, I was popping antacids like crazy to combat indigestion and heartburn, and I had issues with loose stool. I think I have developed an intolerance!

Technically, there is no treatment for alcohol intolerance except for avoiding consuming alcohol. I think my newest symptoms are just another reason to add to the list of why I don’t need alcohol in my life. However, I might do some experimenting to see if I get a reaction from all alcoholic beverages or if it is just red wine.

Red wine is more likely to cause a reaction than any other alcoholic drink. Beer and whiskey can also cause reactions because both are made from four common allergens: yeast, hops, barley and wheat. -WebMD

I am not going to go crazy and start drinking everything in sight to narrow it down, but I do think I will listen to my body and keep some notes about how I am feeling.

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