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Alcohol Allergy: All the Signs to Look Out for (Including Going Red when you Drink)

Is your body saying no to booze for a reason?

It's pretty normal to feel ropey the day after drinking alcohol (especially as so many of the most popular hangover cures are actually myths, sorry). Booze can cause us to experience everything from headaches to nausea the morning after, and can also impact on mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, too. But what about if you feel funny while you're still mid-drink? Or think your hangovers are abnormally severe? It could be a sign that you actually have an allergy, or an intolerance.

What are the symptoms of an alcohol allergy?

Alcohol can negatively affect us in a number of ways, including over-indulgence, reactions to sulphites or histamines contained in your drink, increasing the likelihood of reactions caused by existing allergies, and triggering the symptoms of asthma. "Reactions to alcohol are unlikely to be caused by a 'true' allergy," explains Holly Shaw, Nurse Advisor at Allergy UK. "A true allergy occurs when a person’s immune system reacts inappropriately to a food or some other agent; [with alcohol] most cases [are a] sensitivity to sulphites and histamine [found in some drinks], which are non-allergic."

Signs to look out for? Shaw says symptoms may affect the skin, breathing and circulatory system. "They may also be accompanied by a red rash, swelling to the eyes, lips, face, breathing difficulties, stomach upset, feeling dizzy or faint due to low blood pressure," she adds. "Allergic conditions may be genetic but, can happen in people with no family history too."

Is going red a sign you're allergic to alcohol?

If your favourite tipple leaves your cheeks burning, then yes – you may well have an alcohol sensitivity or intolerance, says nutritionist Jade Taylor, of Kitchen Home. "Hot flashes can occur when alcohol is consumed and can cause a person’s face to turn red. This indicates that the body is encountering difficulty in digesting the substance." All alcohol contains a substance called ethanol and once consumed, the body works to covert it into other substances, or metabolise it to flush it out. "Acetaldehyde is a metabolite produced in this process and is very toxic. Usually, the body has no problem metabolising alcohol, especially if a person drinks in moderation, however if they’re alcohol intolerant, they may find it difficult to break down the alcohol and the acetaldehyde will build up instead."

Excessive acetaldehyde can lead to sickness, an irregular heartbeat and the aforementioned facial flushing. Taylor notes that sometimes an alcohol intolerance is the result of genetics. Like Shaw, she says it could also be that you’re experiencing a reaction to histamines (which can make you feel short of breath) or sulphites, found in some booze (a doctor can decide if allergy testing is needed). Until then, the best advice? If a certain drink (or several) doesn’t agree with you, then steer clear. Sorry.

How does an allergic reaction to alcohol differ from a bad hangover?

The symptoms of drinking alcohol and an allergic reaction to alcohol are quite different, Shaw explains: "Over-indulgence of alcohol may lead to an altered conscious state, and/or stomach upsets like vomiting and nausea. Alcoholic drinks containing histamine, such as beers, ciders or brown liquors, can also trigger symptoms that may be confused with an allergy, such as sneezing, a runny nose, breathing difficulties, tummy upsets, and headaches." She adds that alcohol may also mask the symptoms of a true allergic reaction to a food if they are consumed together. "There is an increased risk of a more severe food-induced allergic reaction, possibly due to increased absorption of the food or accidental ingestion."

Is there a link between having alcohol allergies and eczema?

"Alcohol may in some people aggregate skin conditions like urticaria (hives)," says Nurse Shaw. "You may develop a red rash and/or itchy red raised bumps after consuming alcohol. Some people have a tendency to become red and flushed whilst drinking alcohol, but this is not an allergic reaction."

What about asthma?

Some people with asthma find that their breathing is affected when they drink alcohol. The nurse explains that this is due to the presence of sulphites, which preserve many alcoholic drinks. "For some people with sensitive airways, such as asthmatics, consuming sulphites in alcohol may cause wheezing," she explains. "The amount of sulphites contained in alcohol will vary between products, but sulphur dioxide is one of the fourteen major food allergens that are required by law to be included on labels."

Can you be tested for an alcohol allergy? Are there treatments?

If you’re concerned that you have an allergy, your GP will be able to help. "There are many possible reasons that alcohol may cause unpleasant symptoms that are not allergic in nature," says Shaw. "Your doctor will decide if allergy testing is needed or if the problem is non-allergic (for example histamine intolerance or sulphite sensitivity testing will not be useful here)."

The best treatment of allergies is to avoid the substance that triggers a reaction wherever possible. "This includes looking at ingredient/content labels of food and drink," explains the nurse. "If you are wanting to avoid alcohol, also be cautious of foods that may have alcohol added, for example in a marinade or sauce."