Have you ever gone out for drinks with friends and experienced seriously uncomfortable hangover-like symptoms, after just a few sips of alcohol?
This inability to enjoy even one glass of wine or beer without experiencing discomfort occurs as a result of a condition known as alcohol intolerance. It impacts people from around the world and has varying severity and symptoms for each person. Some can even experience this condition suddenly if they develop an intolerance to an ingredient to alcohol.
Alcohol intolerance impacts your life
Living with alcohol intolerance is actually much more difficult than expected. In most cultures, whether we like it or not, alcohol is the unequivocal drink of choice when it comes to celebration, dating and even doing business. It underpins our general enjoyment of life, relationships and even professional success.
That's not to say you can't enjoy life, have healthy relationships and achieve professional success without curing your alcohol intolerance. However, if you are intolerant to alcohol, you'll know that sometimes it's easy to feel left out in everyday situations. You might have to make the decision to drink less or even nothing at all in fear of suffering embarrassing symptoms in public like a red flushed face, hives and headaches that come with alcohol intolerance. You may even hear people refer to alcohol intolerance as alcohol flush, or alcohol flushing, as red facial flushing is such a common alcohol intolerance symptom.
It's natural to care about how we look. Most of us take pride in the clothes we wear, our hairstyle, skin complexion and general appearance. Especially before going out to socialise or preparing for a special occasion.
Understandably, it is frustrating for people who are intolerant to alcohol when their symptoms come in the way of all the efforts they make to look their best. Because let's face it, a blotchy and swollen red face is hardly the image you'd choose to meet someone you fancy for a date or close an important business deal.
Luckily, a basic understanding of alcohol intolerance and its various symptoms, causes and treatments, is all you need to drink normally and begin enjoying a richer personal, social and professional life.
How long does alcohol flush reaction last?
Since there isn't a standardised reaction to alcohol, or a standard Asian flush reaction, there's no way to tell how long an alcohol flush reaction will last for each person.
For some, it may just last the evening that they consume alcohol and their symptoms will subside a few hours after the reaction. Some may even have lasting symptoms over the course of a few days after having alcohol, such as headache-like symptoms that can last days. It really depends on the person and the severity of their reaction to alcohol or how severe their alcohol flush symptoms are.
Alcohol intolerance is not an allergy to alcohol
Can you be allergic to alcohol? Yes, but alcohol intolerance and an alcohol allergy are two very different things.
This is an important distinction and one that needs to be made before we talk about ways to help solve your intolerance to alcohol. This is because the consumption of alcohol can sometimes lead to fatal consequences for people with a real allergy to alcohol, as opposed to a mere intolerance.
Some believe they may have a specific alcohol allergy, like a vodka allergy or wine allergy. However, the only way to know for certain about your intolerance or allergy is to see your doctor.
Am I allergic to alcohol?
Luckily for most, a real allergy to alcohol is rare but comes with some very severe symptoms.
If you have a true alcohol allergy, even a sip of alcohol can cause symptoms. In some cases, it can result in anaphylactic shock and death. Other symptoms can vary from difficulty breathing to unconsciousness. The surest way to know if you are allergic to alcohol or are merely intolerant is to visit an allergy specialist and have yourself tested.
According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy's article, alcohol allergy symptoms can include:
- itchiness of the eyes, nose or inside the mouth
- eczema, hives or general itchiness of the skin
- swelling of the face, neck and other body parts
- blocked nose, congestion
- wheezy, restricted or laboured breathing
- abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea
- dizziness or loss of consciousness
An allergy to alcohol should never be ignored and pushed aside. If left untreated, it can quickly become worse. A possible alcohol allergy should be discussed with your doctor before drinking alcohol since, in rare cases, severe allergic reactions can be fatal.
Luckily, according to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, most people who think they have an alcohol allergy actually have an intolerance instead. As mentioned earlier, a true alcohol allergy is very rare.
Alcohol intolerance symptoms
One of the most common alcohol intolerance symptoms is getting red facial flushing and unfortunately, this one is difficult to hide.
Other symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:
- swelling around the eyes
- rapid heartbeat
- red flushing on the neck, chest or arms
- wheezy or restricted, laboured breathing
- pulsing headache
The onset of alcohol intolerance symptoms usually begins with a respiratory reaction. Most sufferers will first report minor breathing difficulties, usually accompanied by a noticeable increase in heart rate.
Approximately 20 to 30 minutes after alcohol consumption, sufferers will feel a hot or tingling sensation around the eyes, cheeks, forehead and ears. This is soon followed by a red flushing skin reaction that lasts anywhere between 30 minutes to a few hours depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and a person's individual tolerance to alcohol.
More severe cases of intolerance can also involve migraine-like headaches that occur approximately one to two hours after alcohol consumption and last up to several hours.
Even though these symptoms are not as severe as an alcohol allergy, they are still serious and can be incredibly uncomfortable.
Alcohol intolerance causes
So what is alcohol intolerance? Often-times this condition can be caused either by a genetic trait or a damaged liver, the former being the primary reason. This being said, the following are the most common causes for alcohol intolerance:
In this case, a person suffering from alcohol intolerance has problems breaking down alcohol in their body. This happens due to a genetic deficiency in the way they metabolise alcohol in their liver and their body gets flooded by a toxic by-product of alcohol called acetaldehyde.
In a normal liver, acetaldehyde is broken down into a harmless non-toxic substance called acetate and won't cause any serious symptoms. Problem solved. But unfortunately, this doesn't happen to someone dealing with alcohol intolerance. The toxic acetaldehyde continues to build-up in their system while they drink alcohol and brings about the uncomfortable and sometimes painful symptoms mentioned above.
It has also been reported that acetaldehyde can cause long-term issues for those who deal with alcohol intolerance. In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stated in a press release:
"Carriers of the inactive enzyme are extremely slow to metabolise acetaldehyde, as a result, they experience higher internal levels of acetaldehyde and have much higher risks of oesophageal cancer and cancers of the head and neck compared with individuals with the active enzyme."
So not only does this process cause uncomfortable symptoms like red facial flushing, congestion and increased heartbeat, it can also cause serious long-term harm like an increased risk for cancer.
Our bodies naturally created histamines which are chemicals that are also found in certain foods and alcoholic drinks like beer, champagne and wine. When the ingested histamine is not properly broken down it accumulates, just as the previously-mentioned acetaldehyde, in this manner causing the aforesaid symptoms with an accent on nasal congestion and skin flushing.
This histamine build up develops due to improper metabolization of the ingested histamine by one or two of the following enzymes: Diamine Oxidase (DAO) and histamine-N-methyltransferase (HNMT). So, by not processing the histamine correctly, which is usually the main job of the DAO enzyme, one can experience symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction, which is why these two conditions are often not so distinguishable.
Sulfites have been very useful to us from Roman times onward, since these compounds are used as additives for preserving foods and beverages while preventing bacterial growth. However, sulfates can be found naturally in many alcoholic drinks like wines (especially white), beer, vermouth, sake and some others.
If you have a sensitivity or intolerance to sulfites, the reaction may be increased when consuming sulfites-rich alcohol. The symptoms are similar to those caused by histamine intolerance, meaning that they can easily be confused with allergy-like reactions, so by doing an intolerance test you can confirm or deny this cause for your alcohol intolerance.
Some people may experience uncomfortable symptoms when drinking alcohol because they are actually intolerant to an ingredient in the drink. Grapes, wheat, hops and gluten may be present in the alcoholic drink which is actually causing the problems, instead of the reasons mentioned above. By knowing what ingredients cause your body issues, you can avoid those drinks and make an informed decision about what you'll drink.
Alcohol intolerance health risks
The body is smart. Whenever it reacts negatively to external stimuli it is usually a good idea to stop consuming whatever it was that caused it (at the very least in the short term).
In the case of alcohol and the various negative symptoms discussed above, the body is very much giving us a warning sign that something is not right.
This warning has been publicly reiterated by governmental bodies such as the United States Department of Health Services and the International Agency For Research On Cancer. Both agencies have issued media released specifically warning people with genetic alcohol intolerance (i.e. Asian flush) of their heightened cancer risks from alcohol consumption.
If you want to find out more about these cancer risks, please have a read of our article titled: Debunking the Asian Flush Cancer Myth. In short, those of us who exhibit negative symptoms when consuming alcohol may have a greater risk of developing certain types of cancers.
Alcohol intolerance treatment
Most doctors will tell you that there is no treatment for alcohol intolerance and that the best thing you can do is to avoid alcohol altogether. While some may be happy to abstain from alcohol for the rest of their life, not everyone will be so pleased. Around the world, drinking is a large part of socialising, whether it be at a business dinner or a first date. For those who still wish to drink responsibly and keep an eye on their alcohol intolerance, there may be a few options to try.
Back in 2007, a company called Raptor Pharmaceuticals developed a drug that claimed to tackle the symptoms of ALDH2 deficiency - i.e. the genetic alcohol intolerance.
On the road to commercialising their drug, Raptor Pharmaceutical initiated a phase IIa clinical trial for Convivia that was aimed at establishing a scientific basis for the efficacy of the treatment. The results demonstrated that the active ingredient in Convivia significantly reduced heart palpitations and also reduced peak acetaldehyde levels and total acetaldehyde exposure.
It is worth noting that they make no mention of its efficacy in addressing the red flushing commonly experienced on the face, neck and upper body.
From what we can tell about the Convivia release date, development of the drug has been stagnant for the most part of that last decade and doesn't appear to be getting ready for commercialization anytime soon.
Sunset is at the forefront of tackling Asian Flush symptoms or alcohol intolerance symptoms by first looking at solving the chemical issue that happens when someone consumes alcohol.
By focusing on lowering the level of the carcinogenic toxin acetaldehyde in the body, Sunset Alcohol Flush Support helps Asian Flush sufferers experience less negative symptoms when drinking alcohol.
Antihistamines (Histamine Blockers)
Antihistamines are commonly used for treating some of the Asian flush reaction symptoms, since this condition is also caused by the deficient ALDH enzyme.
The problem with antihistamines is the fact that they do not solve the underlying problem, which is accumulation of the toxic compound acetaldehyde, but merely mask mild symptoms like facial redness. By doing this, the acetaldehyde remains in your system and your blood alcohol level increases which means that you may become drunk only after two beers. What’s more, by continual use you will build up a tolerance to the antihistamines so each time you drink you’ll have to increase the amount of antihistamines you use.
All of these factors make antihistamine use dangerous, so beware if this is the treatment of your choice when it comes to alcohol intolerance.
Using cosmetics to help cover the physical symptoms of alcohol intolerance has been done for years. However, there's never been a cosmetic product designed for facial redness due to alcohol intolerance until Reset.
Reset is a green-tinted moisturiser that works to reduce the visibility of skin redness and soothe irritation and inflammation caused by alcohol intolerance. Anyone familiar with colour correction will know that green is the best colour to hide red, so Reset uses that principle against red facial alcohol flushing. While it's tough on red facial flushing, it's still light enough to use everyday and is hydrating for all skin-types.
While staying hydrated when out drinking with friends won't eliminate your alcohol intolerance symptoms, it's always wise to limit the amount of alcohol in your system and give your body a break. By having water or a non-alcohol drink in-between alcoholic drinks, your body will have to deal with less alcohol overall.
A note about other causes
Beware that alcohol intolerance can also occur due to antibiotics or antifungal medication use as these meds can sometimes prevent the ALDH enzyme from working properly, so talk to your doctor if you think this or liver damage is the cause.