My friend Janey has just rung me in a right old state. She had a terrible Christmas and an even worse New Year’s Eve! Apparently every time she had a glass of anything alcoholic her eyelids swelled and itched, went red and weepy. Not a good look, she said. What could I do to help, she wanted to know. Was it white wine? Champagne? Vodka shots? Sherry in the trifle?
I’m afraid I confirmed that it is perfectly possible to experience allergic reactions to alcoholic drinks and the symptoms of these reactions may be exactly like those that accompany any other food allergy reaction. The only solution is to avoid alcoholic drinks. Annoyingly, the alcohol itself is not typically the reason for these reactions. Other ingredients such as grapes in wine, various grains in beers (hops, barley, rye, corn or wheat) and the addition of yeast (for fermentation of sugars and generation of alcohol) are often the cause.
Sulphites are preservatives added to various foodsand medicines in order to prevent spoilage. They may appear on labels as sodium sulphite, sodium bisulphite, sodium metabisulphite, potassium bisulphite and potassium metabisulphfite. Sulphites can also occur naturally in alcoholic spirits, beers and wines.
Sulphites are known to increase asthma symptoms in about 5% of sufferers, particularly in adults with severe asthma and may result in hives and anaphylaxis in some people.
Numerous well-controlled studies show that some asthmatics can have severe asthma symptoms after consuming sulphite-containing food or drink or after inhaling suphfite fumes or vapours.
Hives and Swelling
Some people, especially those with chronic urticaria (nettle rash) and angioedema, may have an increase in their symptoms with the consumption of alcohol. In these people, an allergic reaction is not to blame; rather, alcohol may simply worsen the underlying disease process.
Some alcoholic beverages contain histamine, which is produced by yeast and bacteria during the fermentation process. Histamine is the same chemical released by mast cells during an allergic reaction and can cause symptoms of itching, hives, sneezing and wheezing. If a particular alcoholic drink contains a large amount of histamine, many people would be expected to have symptoms after consuming it.
Aldehyde dehydrogenase is an enzyme that helps break down alcohol after it is consumed. A deficiency of this enzyme can result in flushing reactions after consuming alcohol. This may include nausea and rapid heart rate. Such reactions can seem like an allergic reaction, but they are actually more often due to this enzyme deficiency. It is most common in Asian people.
Some people experience symptoms of nasal congestion, runny nose and sneezing after drinking alcohol. This is likely due to the dilation of blood vessels in the nose, resulting in mucus production and nasal symptoms. This would be classified as a form of non-allergic rhinitis.
The best book by far on food and drink allergy is The Complete Guide to Food Allergy & Intolerance by Professor Jonathan Brostoff & Linda Gamlin. It is the most reliable, comprehensive and unbiased source of information on all aspsects of food insensitivity and includes a great deal of medical data not available on thr internet. The latest, fully updated and revised 4th edition is available from www.allergybestbuys.co.uk