Can you really be allergic to alcohol?

Alcoholic drinks can cause nasty reactions in some people.
Alcoholic drinks can cause nasty reactions in some people.

Many of us are all too familiar with the symptoms of a hangover after a night on the town. You might have a headache, some fatigue or even nausea and vomiting. 

But when is it simply the side effects of drinking too much, and when is it a sign that you might be allergic to alcohol? Can you even be allergic to alcohol, you ask in a confused tone. 

It seems so, research says. 

Could you be allergic to alcohol?

If you experience nausea, breathing problems or break out in hives after drinking alcoholic beverages, you might be allergic to alcohol.

Adverse reactions to alcoholic drinks are often overlooked because many of the symptoms could be mistaken for a nasty hangover.

An allergic reaction to alcohol is one of a number of unusual allergies. Other examples of uncommon allergens are: semen, water, latex, exercise, extreme temperatures, sunlight and chocolate.

A complex situation

If alcohol is indeed the culprit, it may however be an intolerance instead of a true allergy. A true allergy involves the immune system, while an intolerance tends to cause mainly digestive problems. An intolerance to alcohol is also much more common than an allergy.

Another possibility is that it might not be the alcohol itself that is causing the allergic reaction.

Alcoholic beverages tend to have many ingredients and it could be a food allergy to one of the ingredients in the drink that causes the reaction. You could be reacting to barley, gluten, grapes, histamines, hops, sulphites or a number of other substances.   

If what you’re experiencing is a true alcohol allergy, you may be affected by very small quantities of alcohol. This can be dangerous because it could lead to anaphylactic shock.

The following are symptoms of a true alcohol allergy:

  • Swelling of the lips, mouth or throat
  • Congestion or nasal swelling
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure
  • Worsening of pre-existing asthma
  • Hives

Testing for alcohol allergy

According to Medical Health Tests, allergy tests can be performed through skin tests or blood tests.

1. Skin tests involve placing a small quantity of the allergen on the skin of the individual to determine if an allergic reaction takes place. This can be done in three ways:

  • An allergy prick test is done by pricking the skin with a needle after applying a solution containing the suspected allergen.
  • Intradermal testing is when the allergen-containing solution is injected into the skin.
  • A skin patch test is done by attaching a pad containing the solution for a certain period of time.

2. Blood tests detect the presence of antibodies in the blood. The common types of blood tests are the ELISA or enzyme linked immunosorbent assay test which detects the presence of an antibody called immunoglobulin E, produced in the body in response to particular allergens.

Image credit: iStock

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