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Alcohol and Health

Am I Allergic to Alcohol?

June 22, 2023
9 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 22, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 22, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 22, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
June 22, 2023
9 min read

Imagine planning a house party where you've invited an eclectic mix of close friends, acquaintances, and a featured guest — alcohol. Alcohol can liven up the atmosphere, eliciting laughter and stimulating conversation. However, what happens when this guest starts causing discomfort, triggering unpleasant reactions in some of your friends? Not so fun anymore, right?

This is the nature of alcohol intolerance — an unexpected and often unwelcome guest in our bodies. While it's not an allergy in the conventional sense, it can cause a variety of physical symptoms, similar to how a person can start sneezing after a strong spray of perfume. Our bodies can respond to alcohol as an irritant, causing adverse reactions that are often misunderstood.

What are some signs you're allergic to alcohol? And can you be sensitive to a particular type — for example, can you be allergic to tequila? Or can you be allergic to whiskey? What is the distinction between an alcohol allergy and alcohol intolerance? In this article, we’ll explore the differences between the two — and how to know if either could be impacting you.

The Science Behind Alcohol Intolerance

Alcohol intolerance and alcohol allergy are two different conditions that can cause reactions after drinking alcohol.

Let's delve into the science. Our body metabolizes alcohol using enzymes, primarily alcohol dehydrogenase (ALDH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2). Sometimes, there's a hitch in this process.

Some people possess a version of the ALDH2 enzyme that works inefficiently, leading to an accumulation of a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. This build-up triggers the unpleasant reactions associated with alcohol intolerance.

In other words, if alcohol intolerance is genetic, then it’s due to a mutation to the gene that the body uses to create the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.

In rare cases, alcohol intolerance can suddenly show up as the result of a chronic disease or a medication. Diseases like Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast or ovarian cancer can affect ALDH function. However, if you’ve suddenly developed symptoms like those related to alcohol intolerance symptoms, it does not mean you do or even might have these diseases. It’s always a good idea to speak to your healthcare provider.

An Allergy to Alcohol?

Alcohol allergy is different from alcohol intolerance. In an allergy to alcohol, the immune system mistakenly identifies it as a threat and mounts an aggressive response.

If intolerance is like an inappropriate party guest creating discomfort, then an allergy is like a candle getting knocked over. Its consequences could range anywhere from a waxy patch on the carpet to a serious house fire.

Our body perceives the presence of alcohol as a life-threatening situation, and it sends our immune system into overdrive.

Signs You’re Allergic to Alcohol

Alcohol allergies are extremely rare, but when they occur, they can lead to severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing — which we don't usually see with alcohol intolerance.

An allergy to alcohol can be life-threatening. If you suspect you have an allergic reaction to alcohol, steer clear of it entirely until you’ve consulted with your healthcare provider.

As for the question of whether you can be allergic to a specific type of alcohol, the answer is yes. It all depends on the exact ingredient that’s causing the allergy — it might not be alcohol at all. For example, some people are allergic to grapes and can’t drink wine, but don’t have the same allergic reaction to alcohol when it comes to other types. And can you be allergic to whiskey or tequila? It’s rare but possible. In the case of whiskey, you might be allergic to specific grains that are used in the fermentation process, while in the case of tequila the culprit might be agave.

Decoding the Symptoms of Alcohol Intolerance

The symptoms of alcohol intolerance, on the other hand, can range from mild to severe, and they often appear within minutes after drinking:

  • Facial redness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Hot flashes
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Headaches
  • Hives

It's like our bodies waving a red flag, signaling that we need to reassess our relationship with alcohol.

The way intolerance might be treated depends on the reason causing it. If the causes are genetic, then cutting alcohol out entirely is the only way to curb symptoms of alcohol intolerance.

Sometimes, too, alcohol intolerance symptoms may crop up due to another substance mixed into the beverage — like additives, grains, or preservatives.

Thankfully, alcohol intolerance is rare. A small 2012 study found that 7.2% of those surveyed self-reported allergy-like symptoms after drinking wine. Among those with these reactions, they also had some signs of intolerance to beer and liquor in general. (It’s worth remembering that these findings are not indicative of a general population.)

Recognizing these signs early can be crucial in avoiding severe discomfort and even potential health risks down the line. We all love a good party, but no one wants to invite a guest who causes more harm than joy, do we?

Taking Back Control

Armed with this knowledge, we can take steps to handle our unexpected guest or, better yet, not invite them at all. Here are seven actionable steps to reevaluate our relationship with alcohol:

  1. Knowledge is power: Understand the effects of alcohol on your body. Acknowledging its impact can help in taking decisive action.
  2. Listen to your body: Notice and track the physical cues of intolerance. Include what you drank and when, and as many details as you can about your symptoms.
  3. Seek medical advice: If symptoms persist, are severe, or worry you, consult a healthcare professional for guidance.
  4. Moderation is key: If it's safe to consume alcohol, doing so mindfully can mitigate symptoms.
  5. Alcohol-free days: Designate certain days of the week to abstain from alcohol completely.
  6. Healthy alternatives: Explore other beverages that can replace alcohol at social events, like sparkling water with a twist of lemon or crafted mocktails.
  7. Support network: Reach out to supportive friends and family — and join the robust community you’ll find at Reframe. Our journey towards health doesn’t have to be a solitary one.

Understanding alcohol intolerance and allergy allows us to consider our relationship with alcohol and take strides towards healthier choices. If you think you have an allergy, speak to your healthcare provider. Most likely, they’ll tell you to cut alcohol out entirely and in any form.

Embrace Your Health and Thrive With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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