The Surprising Signs Your Body Is Allergic or Intolerant to Alcohol

From a runny nose to vomiting, the symptoms to being allergic to alcohol can vary, and if you are not aware of this condition, you may not even know you have it.

It was estimated that an American drank on average over 2.51 gallons of ethanol in 2021. This equates to a person aged 14 or older—the legal drinking age in the country is still 21—consuming approximately an average of 535.5 standard drinks in a year, or one-and-a-half drink per day, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

But even though having a drink with friends is just a common social activity for most people, it can potentially be a toxic habit for others. It turns out that not all of us can tolerate alcohol the same way, or at all. But how do you know if you're allergic, or intolerant, to alcohol?

Newsweek spoke to a doctor to find out what it actually means to be allergic to alcohol and what symptoms you should be looking out for.

how to know if you're alcohol intolerant
Stock image of a woman about to grab a glass of red wine. some people suffer Getty Images

Dr. Adam Richmond, a regional medical director with The Recovery Village told Newsweek that there is a common misconception between an alcohol allergy and alcohol intolerance. While it's easy to get confused between the two, they're actually very different conditions.

He explained: "Alcohol intolerance is a condition in which the body inherently cannot process alcohol correctly, causing excess production of a chemical called acetaldehyde."

What Causes Alcohol Intolerance?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, alcohol intolerance is caused by a genetic metabolic disorder that prevents the body from producing the enzymes necessary to process alcohol.

When we consume alcohol, our liver converts the ethanol present in it into acetaldehyde, a substance that can cause cell damage. However, our bodies also produce another enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2), which helps convert acetaldehyde to acetic acid (vinegar), which is nontoxic.

In people who suffer from alcohol intolerance, a genetic mutation that makes the ALDH2 enzyme less active or inactive, the body can't convert acetaldehyde to acetic acid, causing a build-up of this toxic substance in the blood and tissues.

Symptoms of Alcohol Intolerance

One of the major symptoms of this condition is alcohol flushing syndrome, which makes your face, neck, and chest become warm and pink or even red right after you consume alcoholic drinks,the Cleveland Clinic explains.

Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting; rapid heartbeat (tachycardia) or heart palpitations; hypotension (low blood pressure); throbbing headache, fatigue, and other hangover-like symptoms; stuffy nose; diarrhea; and worsening asthma.

Alcohol Allergy

Alcohol allergy is a different condition. Its symptoms are usually more painful and uncomfortable than intolerance symptoms, and in rare cases, if untreated, an alcohol allergy can become life-threatening.

According to Dr. Richmond, an allergy to alcohol is often not caused by the alcohol itself, but rather by a component of the alcoholic beverage or product, such as grapes, hops, barley, rye, wheat or yeast.

"It's important to note that the onset of alcohol allergy symptoms can be brought on by any product that contains alcohol, including mouthwashes, cough syrups, salad dressings, and tomato sauces," he said.

Symptoms of an Alcohol Allergy

Symptoms of an alcohol allergy are often a result of the body's immune system becoming overactive and attacking components found in the alcohol.

They can range from mild to severe, according to Richmond, and may include runny nose, coughing, wheezing, itching or hives. More severe symptoms include swelling of the face, mouth, or tongue; nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; or lightheadedness.

"Allergy symptoms that affect breathing or have the potential to block your airway can be life-threatening, and people who experience such symptoms should seek emergency care," he added.

There is nothing you can do to prevent reactions to alcohol or to ingredients in alcoholic beverages, according to the Healthline website. The only way to avoid a reaction, is to avoid alcohol altogether, or at least the particular substance that causes your reaction.

If you're allergic to one of the components found in alcohol, the best way to avoid a reaction, besides avoiding alcohol, is to make sure you thoroughly read beverage labels to see whether they contain the ingredients or additives that make you sick, such as sulfites or certain grains, although you should also be mindful of the fact that labels might not list all the ingredients present in the drink.

While a mild allergic reaction could be treated by over-the-counter antihistamines, according to Healthline, it is best to contact a doctor for guidance.

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