Alcohol Intolerance Or Allergy?

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

We all know that if you overdo it when you drink alcohol, you’ll probably get a nasty hangover the next day. But what if you don’t feel well even when you drink a little? Though there are some people who have alcohol intolerance, there’s a greater chance that you may actually be allergic to an ingredient in the alcoholic beverage you’re consuming. Find out more about what could be causing these symptoms and how to treat them.


To determine whether you have alcohol intolerance or an allergy, first look closely at your symptoms. Though alcohol intolerance and allergy symptoms often overlap, tracking your symptoms can be useful for providing your doctor with information about what’s causing you to feel that way.

The most common symptoms associated with alcohol intolerance are:

On the other hand, an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the alcoholic beverage you’re drinking (or to the alcohol itself) could cause one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Swelling of the lips, mouth or throat
  • Congestion or nasal swelling
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Shortness of breath
  • Collapse
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure
  • Worsening of pre-existing asthma
  • Hives (warm, red, itchy bumps on the skin)

To complicate matters, you also need to take into consideration what type of alcoholic beverage you’re consuming. For instance, beer typically contains yeast, wheat and gluten, all of which are common allergens. Meanwhile, red wine has plenty of histamines and white wine is rich in sulphites. Therefore, your symptoms may vary widely based on how you react to these ingredients.

The following describes which symptoms are most likely to occur if you have an allergic reaction to a specific ingredient in an alcoholic beverage:

  • Sulphites: hives, anaphylaxis
  • Histamines: nasal swelling, congestion
  • Sulphates: worsening of asthmatic symptoms

Be aware that if you are actually allergic to alcohol (not just to an ingredient in what you’re drinking), even a small amount of it could cause serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, stomach cramps or collapse.

Causes And Risk Factors

Alcohol intolerance is caused by the body’s lack of the proper enzymes to metabolize the toxins found in various alcoholic drinks. This is a genetic trait, so you are more likely to have alcohol intolerance if you have blood relatives with the same issue. Other factors that can increase your risk of alcohol intolerance are taking certain medications (such as antibiotics or antifungal medications), being of Asian descent and having Hodgkin lymphoma.

With allergies, the cause of the symptoms varies according to what ingredients you are allergic to. Therefore, the type of drink you consume can affect your risk of experiencing those symptoms. In some cases, having blood relatives with these types of allergies may increase your risk of having them as well.


If you find that you are experiencing the symptoms mentioned above, the first step of treatment is to determine if you have an allergy to an ingredient in alcoholic beverages and, if so, what you are allergic to. A doctor can assess your symptoms and skin or blood tests to diagnose any possible allergies.

The only way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol intolerance or an allergic reaction to ingredients in an alcoholic beverage is to avoid alcohol entirely. However, if your reactions are minor and not threatening to your health, you may be able to consume alcohol in moderation. Additionally, if you have worked with a doctor to determine which substances you are allergic to, you may be able to find alcoholic beverages that don’t contain those allergens. For example, you may be able to drink liquor instead of beer or white wine instead of red wine. Read beverage labels carefully to ensure that it won’t lead to an allergic reaction.

Finally, you should also ask your doctor about ways to relieve your symptoms if you do decide to drink. With your doctor’s approval, you may be able to take over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines to help reduce your symptoms. Keep in mind that those with serious allergies should avoid drinking completely and consider wearing a medical alert bracelet or carrying an emergency epinephrine autoinjector like the EpiPen in case a severe allergic reaction occurs.

Bottom Line

It’s important to seek treatment if you are experiencing possible allergy symptoms as a severe allergic reaction could potentially occur. In addition, you should talk to your doctor about whether you can safely consume alcohol and, if so, what kinds are best for your condition. Finally, if you experience severe pain as a result of drinking alcohol, there may be something more serious causing your pain, such as Hodgkin lymphoma. See a doctor if you experience this symptom.


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