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Alcohol and Health

Can Alcohol Make Allergy Symptoms Worse?

June 19, 2023
18 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 19, 2023
18 min read
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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 19, 2023
18 min read
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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 19, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 19, 2023
18 min read

It’s allergy season and the pollen is everywhere, leaving a light dusting on your car, porch, windowsills and clothes. You wake up sneezing and spend the day blowing your nose, coughing, and trying to soothe a scratchy throat. By the time the evening comes, you’ve had it: you feel like you can barely breathe and can’t get any relief. You go to crack open a bottle of wine with the hope that it will at least help you relax and settle down. But is combining alcohol with allergies a smart move?

In this post, we’ll explore the relationship between allergies and alcohol. We’ll learn how alcohol can worsen allergy symptoms to understand better ways of managing symptoms. Let’s dive in!

What Are Allergies, Anyway?

Before we look at the relationship between alcohol and allergies, it’s helpful to understand what exactly allergies are and what happens during an allergic reaction.

Simply put, allergies are our immune system’s response to an allergen, such as pollen, bee venom, pet dander, or certain drugs or foods. They occur when our immune system mistakenly identifies these harmless foreign substances as a threat.

When an allergen enters our system, it interacts with specific immune cells called mast cells. These mast cells are armed with receptors that recognize the allergen as an intruder. Once the allergen binds to these receptors, it triggers the mast cells to release a variety of chemicals, including histamines. These histamines cause the classic symptoms we associate with allergies, such as sneezing, watery eyes, itching, congestion, hay fever, or even more severe reactions, depending on the allergy.

The severity of allergies varies from person to person and can range from minor irritation to anaphylaxis, which is a potentially life-threatening energy.

How Does Alcohol Affect Allergies?

Now that we have a better grasp on allergies, we can turn to the next question: how does alcohol affect our allergy symptoms? Well, the research is pretty clear: studies have found that alcohol can cause or worsen common symptoms of allergies, asthma, and hay fever, such as sneezing, itching, headaches and coughing.

For instance, one study in older people with asthma found that over 40 percent of participants said that drinking alcohol prompted allergy or allergy-like symptoms. And 30-35 percent said it made their asthma worse.

The culprit isn’t necessarily the alcohol itself, but rather what the alcohol contains: histamines. This chemical compound can trigger inflammation and allergic reactions. Histamines occur naturally in varying amounts in almost all food, but are more prevalent in aged or fermented foods or drinks, like alcohol including beer, wine, and liquor. So as soon as we start drinking, our system is flooded with histamine, which can trigger our allergy symptoms.

To complicate matters, alcohol also blocks the production of diamine oxidase (DAO), an enzyme in our body that helps break down histamine. In other words, alcohol not only introduces more histamines into our system, but inhibits the enzyme that our body needs to help break it down. This is ultimately why we might find ourselves sneezing, itching or coughing more after having a drink.

However, when it comes to triggering an allergic reaction, histamines aren’t the only culprit. Sulfites — which is another ingredient found in alcohol, particularly beer and wine — are also to blame and can provoke asthma and other allergy-like symptoms.

Sulfites are used as preservatives in a range of foods and drinks. They’re produced naturally when beer, wine, and cider are made. But manufacturers also use sulfites to increase the shelf life of beers and wines. However, this ingredient has been linked to an increased risk of asthma attacks and allergic reactions. In fact, one study noted that alcohol use triggered an asthma attack in one-third of participants.

Furthermore, many of alcohol’s natural properties can worsen allergy symptoms. For instance, alcohol can cause our blood pressure to go up and down by constricting and dilating our blood vessels. This can worsen allergic reactions. Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning it increases the amount of water we expel from our body. Dehydration can actually make our allergy symptoms worse.

Even the alcohol manufacturing process can trigger allergic reactions in some people. For instance, drinking alcohol that has been aged in wooden barrels can prompt allergic reactions in people sensitive to tree nuts.

Are Some Types of Alcohol Worse Than Others?

Most alcoholic beverages contain some histamines and sulfites and can thus worsen allergy symptoms. However, some types of alcohol contain more histamines and sulfites than others.

For instance, red wine in particular contains the largest number of histamines, having between 60 to 3,800 micrograms per glass versus white wine, which has between 3 and 120. Most beer also has a lot of histamines, but hard cider and hard liquor—such as vodka and gin—typically have lower amounts.

As for sulfites, beer and red wine tend to have fewer sulfites than white wine. Vodka and gin, however, are usually free of sulfites due to the distillation process.

Another thing to keep in mind is the amount of sugar in alcohol. Since sugar is inflammatory, high sugar content can make allergy symptoms worse. But high sugar content isn’t just limited to mixed drinks: wine can also contain more sugar than we realize. In fact, some mass produced red wines contain as much as 12 grams of residual sugar — meaning the sugar that doesn’t ferment into alcohol — per liter.

Furthermore, depending on our drink of choice, certain ingredients besides alcohol can cause allergy symptoms. For instance, beer usually contains gluten, yeast, and hops. If we’re sensitive to any of these compounds, we might experience allergy-like symptoms after drinking a few beers.

How Alcohol Affects Our Immune Response

Since our immune system is responsible for protecting us against harmful substances, including allergens, it's helpful to also look at how alcohol affects our immune system.

Multiple studies confirm that alcohol can significantly impair our immune system, potentially leading to heightened allergic responses. Excessive drinking in particular can suppress certain aspects of our immune system, making us more susceptible to allergies and other health issues.

For instance, a recent study found a link between high alcohol use and high IgE levels. IgE is an antibody that the body releases in response to allergens. While this doesn’t mean that alcohol causes allergies, it indicates that alcohol interacts with a component of the body’s allergic response.

Interestingly, non-allergic rhinitis is another condition that mimics allergies but is not triggered by the same immune response as seasonal allergies. Studies have shown that drinking can trigger non-allergic rhinitis symptoms. While the exact mechanisms behind this link are not yet fully understood, it’s an area of ongoing research.

Is it Possible to Be Allergic to Alcohol?

So, what about an allergy to alcohol itself? Is that possible? Our body produces alcohol on its own, so alcohol allergy is actually quite rare. Alcohol intolerance, on the other hand, is much more common. In fact, one study found that 7.2 percent of participants reported experiencing allergy-like symptoms after drinking wine. But only two of the 68 participants had a medically diagnosed allergy.

An alcohol allergy is the result of an immune system problem, while alcohol intolerance is triggered by genetic problems in the digestive system that make it difficult for the body to break down alcohol effectively. For instance, many people with alcohol intolerance have a deficiency in alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which is an important enzyme that breaks down alcohol’s toxic compounds. If we suffer from alcohol intolerance, we’ll likely experience facial flushing, nasal congestion, a rash, upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting.

A true alcohol allergy causes far more serious symptoms and may trigger an anaphylactic reaction, which can cause rapid or weak pulse, fainting, shock, coma, and even death.

Tips for Managing Allergies

Given that alcohol can worsen allergy symptoms, it’s probably wise to limit our consumption or avoid it altogether, particularly during an allergy season. Apart from that, here are a few more tips for managing allergy symptoms:

  • Avoid allergens: This might seem fairly obvious, but it’s typically the first line of defense against symptoms. Irritants vary from person to person, so it’s important to know what triggers yours. Allergies can also vary by the time of year. For instance, in early spring, tree pollens are the most likely culprits. In the beginning of summer, grass pollens are at their highest. If your symptoms are bad all year around, they may be the result of allergens in our home or work environment, such as dust, mold, or pet dander.
  • Utilize over-the-counter remedies: Several types of nonprescription medications can help ease allergy symptoms. Some of the most effective include oral antihistamines — substances that block histamine activity in the body — such as Zyrtec, Allegra, or Claritin. You can also try nasal sprays like Flonase Allergy Relief or oral decongestants like Sudafed.
  • Incorporate natural antihistamines: While over-the-counter and prescription antihistamine medications can be helpful, they may also cause drowsiness and nausea. You might benefit from using natural plant extracts and food that act as antihistamines and can provide relief from allergy symptoms. These include things like vitamin C, butterbur, bromelain, probiotics, and quercetin.
  • Rinse your sinuses: Severe congestion may warrant the use of steam from a humidifier or steam machine, or a neti pot to clear up accumulation in the nasal cavities. Rinsing our nasal passages with a saline solution is a quick, inexpensive and effective way to relieve nasal congestion. It helps flush out mucus and allergens from our nose. Saline solutions can be purchased ready-made or as kits to add to water. If we do use a kit, be sure to use bottled water to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Drink liquids: If we feel stuffy or have post nasal drip from allergies, make sure to drink plenty of water or warm fluids like teas, broth, or soup. The extra liquid can help thin the mucus in our nasal passages and provide a bit of relief.
  • Eat healthy: While eating healthy can’t prevent allergies from occurring, it’s important to keep our immune system in great shape. Plus, one study showed that people who eat a lot of fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts — particularly grapes, apples, oranges, and tomatoes — had fewer allergy symptoms. Try adding at least one fresh fruit or veggie to every meal.

The Bottom Line

Allergies occur when our immune system mistakenly identifies harmless substances as a threat. This triggers a cascade of symptoms, such as sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, itching, or hay fever. While an actual allergy to alcohol is rare, alcohol has large amounts of histamines, sulfites, and other natural properties which can exacerbate allergy symptoms. If we struggle with allergies, it’s best to limit our consumption of alcohol or eliminate it altogether.

If you want to cut back on your alcohol intake but don’t know where or how to start, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and enhance their overall health.

Summary FAQs

1. What are allergies?

Allergies are our immune system’s response to an allergen, such as pollen, bee venom, pet dander, or certain drugs or foods. They occur when our immune system mistakenly identifies these harmless foreign substances as a threat.

2. How does alcohol affect allergies?

Research shows that alcohol can make allergy symptoms worse. This is because alcohol has large amounts of histamines, a chemical compound that can trigger inflammation and allergic reactions. Alcohol also contains sulfites which have been shown to trigger asthma and other allergy-like symptoms.

3. Is it possible to be allergic to alcohol?

Alcohol allergies are quite rare. However, alcohol intolerance is much more common and is usually triggered by genetic problems in the digestive system that make it difficult for the body to break down alcohol effectively.

4. How can we manage our allergy symptoms?

If we struggle with allergies, it’s best to limit our consumption of alcohol or avoid it altogether. We can also benefit from avoiding contact with allergens, using over-the-counter allergy medicines, incorporating natural antihistamines into our diet, rinsing out our sinuses, and staying hydrated.

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