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Alcohol and Health

Can Drinking Alcohol Worsen My Asthma Symptoms?

August 8, 2023
10 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 8, 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.
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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.
August 8, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
August 8, 2023
10 min read

The coughing, the wheezing, the trouble breathing. Anyone who’s had an asthma attack knows how uncomfortable and frightening it can be. A relatively common condition, asthma affects nearly 26 million people in the U.S. — about 1 in 13 people.

While symptoms vary from person to person, certain things can trigger an attack, including environmental factors such as air pollution and emotional states such as high stress levels. But what about alcohol? Is there a connection between alcohol use and asthma?

What Is Asthma?

Before we explore how alcohol affects asthma, let’s first take a look at what exactly asthma is. Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways in our lungs. During an asthma attack, our airways become swollen and inflammed, making it difficult to breathe. We might experience shortness of breath, coughing, and a whistling or wheezing sound.

A number of triggers can cause an asthma attack, but they often vary from person to person. Some of the more common asthma triggers include air irritants, such as air pollution, chemicals, and smoke; allergens, such as dust mites, cockroaches, molds, and pet dander; exercise; stress; and weather extremes, such as very hot or cold days.

When someone is exposed to their particular trigger, their airways react by becoming tighter. The mucus in the inflamed airways also thickens, making it difficult to breathe.

The severity and frequency of asthma attacks vary from person to person. For some of us, asthma is a minor nuisance that occurs infrequently. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.

What the Research Says About Alcohol and Asthma

Researchers are still trying to determine the connection between alcohol and asthma. However, studies indicate that alcohol can make asthma symptoms worse, and it can even trigger a full-blown asthma attack. One study noted that 33% of people suffered from an asthma attack after consuming alcohol. Their attacks ranged from mild to moderate.

Researchers also found most alcohol-related asthma symptoms start within 1 hour of consuming alcohol. Studies indicate three possible reasons why the effects of alcohol can increase the risk of asthma attacks:

Histamine Resemblance

When allergens enter our body, our immune system releases a chemical called histamine. This chemical often causes us to have an allergic reaction. Histamine is produced from bacteria and yeast when alcohol ferments. While present in all alcohol types, including liquor and beer, histamines are especially prevalent in red wine. Researchers believe that for people with asthma, the histamines from alcohol can cause our body to have an allergic reaction, triggering asthma symptoms or an asthma attack.

Sulfite Sensitivity

Sulfites, which can cause allergic reactions, are used as preservatives in a range of foods and drinks. They’re produced naturally when beer, wine, and cider are made. Wine in particular contains a lot of sulfites to preserve its freshness and prevent it from further fermentation. Those of us with a sulfite allergy can have an asthma attack triggered by sulfites. Up to 10% of people with asthma are sensitive to these additives.

Acid Reflux

Alcoholic beverages can also cause acid reflux, which occurs when the acid in our stomach backs up into our esophagus. In extreme cases, this acid can build up in the back of our throat and enter our breathing tubes. This can happen soon after alcohol is consumed or while we sleep. To trap the acid, our body produces mucus, which can make it difficult to breath and trigger an asthma attack.

In addition to these three reasons, it’s also worth noting that, for many people, anxiety and stress can trigger asthma symptoms or an asthma attack. Contrary to popular belief, drinking alcohol can actually increase levels of stress and anxiety, thereby indirectly contributing to asthma.

Everyone is different. Some people might notice symptoms — a tight chest, wheezing, or feeling breathless — after just a few sips of alcohol. Others might not experience a reaction until the following day.

Are Any Alcoholic Beverages Safe To Drink With Asthma?

Research suggests that certain alcoholic beverages may trigger asthma symptoms more than others. For instance, in the study mentioned above, wine — which contains both sulfites and histamines — was the number one culprit when it came to inducing symptoms. Overall, red wine was said to be the most common inducer. This is probably because white wine typically contains fewer sulfites and histamines than red wine.

However, people with asthma might feel fine drinking 100% organic wines, as they have no added sulfites. Keep in mind that beer, even though it contains less sulfites than wine, could still trigger asthma symptoms.

In general, alcoholic drinks with fewer or no sulfites are probably the best options for those with asthma. For instance, clear spirits such as gin and vodka are typically free of sulfites.

The amount we drink may also contribute to worsening asthma symptoms. For instance, if one glass of wine or beer has no effect, but a reaction occurs after three glasses, it may be that allergens are only present in low amounts, and our reaction isn’t triggered until the “proper” amount has been consumed.

Generally speaking, if we have asthma, it’s probably wise to limit our consumption of alcohol or avoid it altogether.

The Bottom Line

While more research is needed, studies so far indicate that alcohol can make our asthma symptoms worse and trigger an asthma attack. If we have asthma and drink alcohol, it’s important to pay close attention to our breathing and take note of any changes. If we notice that alcohol is triggering our symptoms, it’s best to eliminate it entirely. If stress and anxiety tend to trigger our asthma, remember that alcohol can actually increase our stress levels and make our anxiety worse.

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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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