There’s a well-known phrase in Alcoholics Anonymous making light of the concept of an allergy to alcohol. It goes, “I have an allergy to alcohol — whenever I drink it, I break out in handcuffs.” While it’s usually used in a light, playful way, what it signifies is the importance of complete sobriety — even a single drink can start a person down the wrong path if they’re in recovery. But while the phrase is a clever play on words, a beer allergy (or allergy to other types of alcohol) is a real thing.
In this piece we’ll explore the concept of a beer allergy — sometimes referred to as “alcohol intolerance” — including why it happens, signs and symptoms, what it really is and why habits surrounding it may be indicative of something more severe.
What Is Alcohol Intolerance?
The term “alcohol intolerance” is used to describe an adverse physical reaction to drinking any type of alcohol. According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition where some people’s bodies can’t properly break down alcohol.
With this in mind, the term is often also used to describe an actual allergic reaction to ingredients found in alcoholic drinks. This is why it’s commonly called a beer allergy — because the ingredients that tend to cause the reaction are more often found in beer than other alcohols.
Many beer allergy symptoms mirror those common with other allergic reactions:
- “Flushing” — redness of the face, neck, and upper chest
- Itchy or painful hives
- Runny nose, coughing or sneezing
- Difficulty breathing
- Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea
People sometimes experience milder versions of this reaction. This is because some alcohol drinks have natural histamines in them as a byproduct of the brewing process. These are the same histamines that your body releases during an allergic response, meaning that drinking certain types of beer, wine, or liquor can actually simulate this type of reaction.
What Is “True” Alcohol Intolerance?
As we alluded to earlier, there’s a difference between actual alcohol intolerance and an allergy to one of the ingredients in many alcoholic beverages.
Alcohol tolerance is usually an inherited condition, but it may present later in life. It involves a dysfunction of the enzymes needed (usually in the liver) to break down alcohol in the metabolism.
Risk factors for alcohol intolerance include:
- Being ethnically Asian or of Asian descent
- Sometimes, it can be worsened by “hay fever” and seasonal allergies
- Certain diseases may cause a person to temporarily or permanently become unable to tolerate alcohol — Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for example
What Is a Beer Allergy Actually Caused By?
We mentioned that sometimes a beer allergy is alcohol intolerance — a genetic condition that causes some people to be unable to process alcohol normally. Other times, a beer allergy is an allergy to some of the most common ingredients in certain drinks. These are:
- Sulfites or other preservatives: A list of alcohols high in sulfites would be led by wines and liquors that are meant to be aged. Sulfites and other preservatives can cause reactions in some drinkers. So-called “natural wines” are growing in popularity, largely because they’re lower in preservatives that may induce a reaction in some drinkers.
- Gluten, grains and chemical compounds: People with sensitivities to gluten and other grains are typically unable to drink beer without experiencing adverse side effects, which is likely the reason why “beer allergy” has become such a well-known phrase.
- Histamines: We mentioned before that histamines are natural byproducts of the brewing and fermentation process that many alcohols go through before they’re sold. Introducing histamines into the body can cause an artificial allergic response with many of the same symptoms as alcohol intolerance.
Why Alcohol Intolerance Is Sometimes Difficult to Recognize
How do you know if you’re having an allergic reaction to beer, wine or liquor? Sometimes, it may be more difficult to tell than something you had for dinner.
The reason for this is not hard to understand. Consuming alcohol makes you feel different, and whether that’s a good different or a bad different depends on the person. The point is, when you drink alcohol, you’re choosing to consume something with the full knowledge that it’s going to change the way you feel and perceive the world around you. When that feeling starts to resemble an allergic reaction or physical illness, it may not be as noticeable as it would otherwise.
In fact, some people may have a beer allergy and not know about it until they really start exploring the symptoms and the circumstances that bring them on.
The Rise of Sober Acceptance
Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of people who are sober by choice outside of being in recovery.
More and more celebrities have come forward as sober for their own health, and young adults are exploring the potential of living an alcohol-free lifestyle in increasing numbers for reasons that go beyond past problems with drinking or using drugs.
This trend is gradually decreasing the seemingly ubiquitous social pressure to drink as more and more people realize that drinking alcohol isn’t the right choice for everyone.
The Darker Side of Alcohol Intolerance
Sometimes, a person might be allergic to common ingredients in their favorite adult beverages and understand why drinking makes them physically sick but continue doing it.
This may be because drinking fulfills a purpose for them. For example, many people use drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with stress, numbing their problems or escaping their lives. In this case, substance abuse is probably indicative of a deeper issue — substance dependence or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety.
In other cases, a beer allergy can form over time, and a person keeps drinking because they can’t bring themselves to stop. If you’re getting sick from drinking but ignoring the negative consequences of a beer allergy, it may be time to examine your drinking habits and potentially seek professional help.
Problem Drinking and FHE Health
It’s often the case that a person with a drinking problem may not know it. It’s not just that people with addiction can be in denial; certain behaviors can be difficult to detect. In a society that glorifies heavy drinking, this may be even more of a challenge.
At FHE Health, we understand that the circumstances that prompt a person to ask for help can vary. We’re deeply experienced in helping people understand their own habits and how these habits are affecting their life and their health and making sure that everyone has access to compassionate support, no matter what.
To learn more, contact FHE Health today.