Sunset Alcohol Flush Support

Your Guide to Sudden Alcohol Intolerance & Alcohol Allergies

alcohol intolerant man at party

Have you ever gone out for drinks with friends and suddenly experienced uncomfortable symptoms of alcohol intolerance?  Perhaps you've wondered whether it is an alcohol allergy.

The purpose of this article is to take an in-depth look at the symptoms, causes and risks associated with alcohol intolerance.  It also aims to dispel the common confusion between a mere intolerance to alcohol and the much more severe symptoms of alcohol allergy


Table of Contents

    1. Alcohol intolerance is not an allergy to alcohol.
    2. What is an alcohol allergy?
    3. How do alcohol allergies start?
    4. Alcohol intolerance symptoms
    5. Alcohol intolerance causes
    6. Alcohol intolerance health risks
    7. How alcohol intolerance impacts your life.

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Alcohol intolerance is not an allergy to alcohol.

Can you be allergic to alcohol? Yes, but intolerance and an allergy are two very different things and it's important to understand their differences.

This distinction is essential and one that needs clarification before we talk about ways to help your intolerance to alcohol. The reason for this is that the consumption of alcohol can sometimes lead to fatal consequences for people with a real ethanol allergy, as opposed to a mere intolerance.

Furthermore, some people may have a specific alcohol allergy, like a vodka allergy or wine allergy.  The only way to reliably know whether you have an intolerance or allergy is to see your doctor and undergo the proper testing discussed below.

What is an alcohol allergy?

Luckily for most, a real allergy to alcohol is rare but comes with some very severe symptoms.

If you have an 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 diarrhoea
  • dizziness or loss of consciousness

Alcohol allergy test - How to get tested for alcohol allergies

If you think that you are allergic to alcohol, a doctor can arrange a test for you. Getting an allergy test done is the only way to know the allergy relates to ethanol itself, or certain ingredients in beverages, like rye, grapes or gluten.

A skin-prick test is also highly effective in testing for allergies. Your doctor will prick your skin with various allergens. If that section of skin reacts to the substance, then you’ll know that you’re allergic to that particular ingredient.

Keeping a food diary for a few weeks can also be helpful. Recording what you consume and when, along with any accompanying symptoms, is vitally important. The doctor will be then able to see what could be causing the reaction.

How do alcohol allergies start? 

It begins with exposure to an allergen. In this case, alcohol. This reaction can happen suddenly after a lifetime of drinking alcohol without any trouble.

If the body identifies the alcohol as a threat, the immune system makes a record of it and produces antibodies to prepare for the next time it encounters the danger.

When you come across this allergen again, the antibodies recognise it and activate what is known as mast cells.

These mast cells then release histamines that bind to receptors around the body and cause the symptoms of alcohol allergy listed above.

diagram of histamine receptors involved in allergic reaction to alcohol

An allergy to alcohol should never be ignored and pushed aside. If left untreated, it can quickly become worse. 

Luckily, according to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, most people who think they have an alcohol allergy have an intolerance instead. As mentioned earlier, a real alcohol allergy is very rare.

Alcohol intolerance symptoms

One of the most common alcohol intolerance symptoms is getting red facial flushing, often referred to as the alcohol flush reaction.  It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as an Asian alcohol allergy.  Unfortunately, this one is difficult to hide.

alcohol intolerance facial flushing

Other symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:

The onset of symptoms is usually noticed by slightly more laboured breathing after consuming alcohol. Most sufferers will first report minor breathing difficulties, traditionally 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. Following these symptoms is commonly a red flushing skin reaction lasting anywhere between 30 minutes to a few hours. The duration depends on the amount of alcohol consumed and a person's tolerance to alcohol.

More severe cases of intolerance can also involve 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 unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Alcohol intolerance causes

Alcohol intolerance can be caused either by a genetic trait or a damaged liver, the former being the primary reason.

Here's a short video summarising some key points:

The following are the most common causes of alcohol intolerance:

Enzyme Deficiency

In this case, a person suffering from alcohol intolerance has problems breaking down alcohol in their body. The cause of this is a genetic deficiency in the ALDH2 enzyme, which affects the way the liver metabolises alcohol. This deficiency results in an accumulation of a toxic metabolic byproduct called acetaldehyde.

alcohol metabolism

In a healthy liver, acetaldehyde is broken down into a harmless, non-toxic substance called acetate and won't cause any severe symptoms. 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.

According to Dr Benjamin Voight, PhD and associate professor in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania:

"Acetaldehyde itself is toxic, and when accumulated causes flushing and is associated with the feelings we associate with hangovers."

Acetaldehyde can also 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."

Therefore, uncomfortable symptoms like red facial flushing, congestion and increased heartbeat are not the only concern. It can also cause serious long-term harm like an increased risk of cancer.

Histamine Intolerance

Our bodies naturally created histamines which are chemicals also found in certain foods and alcoholic drinks like beer, champagne and wine. When histamine is not adequately broken down, it accumulates. This build-up causes symptoms with an accent on nasal congestion and skin flushing.

According to researchers in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Bonn, the build-up develops because of a dysfunction in one or two of the following enzymes: Diamine Oxidase (DAO) and histamine-N-methyltransferase (HNMT). By not processing the histamine correctly, one may experience symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction.

Sulfites Intolerance

Sulfites have been very useful to us from Roman times as additives for preserving foods and beverages while preventing bacterial growth. However, sulfates can be found naturally in many alcoholic drinks like wines (mainly white), beer, vermouth, sake and some others.

If you have a sensitivity or intolerance to sulfites, the reaction may increase when consuming sulfites-rich alcohol. The symptoms are similar to those caused by histamine intolerance and can easily be confused with allergy-like symptoms. Doing a test can confirm or deny the actual cause of the alcohol intolerance.

Allergen Ingredients

Some people may experience uncomfortable symptoms when drinking alcohol because they are intolerant to an ingredient in the drink. Grapes, wheat, hops and gluten may be present in the alcoholic beverage, which is causing the problems, instead of the reasons mentioned above. By knowing what ingredients cause you issues, you can avoid those drinks and make an informed decision about what to drink.

Non-alcohol related allergies

Sometimes the consumption of alcohol itself can increase sensitivity to pre-existing allergies.  In a 2005 Swedish Study of several thousand individuals, researchers found that people with asthma and hay-fever had a higher chance of experiencing breathing difficulties after consuming alcohol.  The study founds that grape-based wine was the most frequent trigger, with women being approximately twice as likely to be affected as men.

Regular alcohol consumption has also been shown to aggravate other allergy symptoms.  In a 2008 study of thousands of women, researchers found that exceeding more than two glasses of wine a day nearly doubled the risk of participants experiencing non-alcohol allergy symptoms.  These finding also included women who did not have seasonal and perennial allergies when they started the study.

Alcohol intolerance health risks

The body is smart. When it reacts negatively to external stimuli, it could be a sign 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 logic is consistent with warnings from governmental bodies such as the United States Department of Health Services and the International Agency For Research On Cancer. Both agencies have issued media releases specifically warning people with alcohol intolerance of their heightened cancer risks from alcohol consumption.

If you want to find out more about these risks, please have a read of our article titled: Debunking the Asian Flush Cancer Myth.

How alcohol intolerance impacts your life.

Living with the symptoms of alcohol intolerance is difficult. In many cultures, 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 networking.

That's not to say you can't have a great social or professional life if you have alcohol intolerance. However, it's sometimes easy to feel left out. You may decide to drink less, or even nothing at all, in fear of suffering embarrassing symptoms in public like Asian flush, hives and alcohol-related headaches

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 looking their best. Because let's face it, a red face from alcohol is not the ideal 'look' you'd choose for a hot date or business meeting.

The good news is, a basic understanding of alcohol intolerance is the first step towards enjoying a more vibrant social and professional life.

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Published on Jan 02, 2020 in category by - Asian flush consultant @ SRQ Labs

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Mar 03, 2020 • Posted by Chris

I just started noticing that although I do get flushed I get nasal congestion and itchy eyes and I’m sneezing a lot and wheezing after consuming alcohol. I just figured it was because I smoke. But I dont feel that if I haven’t drank recently. Maybe it’s time to quit both and live a healthier lifestyle.

Jan 29, 2020 • Posted by Carol Holland

I’ve just drank half a can of tesco gin rhubarb and ginger. My face started heating up and laboured breathing . discomfort in stomach and raised heart beat. I quickly drank loads of water and ice pack on my face. After 30mns I felt better face still reddish tho. I’ve drank this before and iwas

Jan 29, 2020 • Posted by Sibyl

I’m currently 26, and this started happening to me at 23.
It’s so sad and really sucks. I’m only in my 20s!!
It’s frustrating! I have fun sober, but it’ll just be nice to have a drink once in a while.

I have thrown up multiple times due to my intolerance. I would only have a SIP and I’ll be throwing up everywhere.

Jan 13, 2020 • Posted by Kc

RAYUDU! That exact same thing happens to me! I went from drinking a couple drinks almost every night and then suddenly after a stressful couple of months, boom! Cant have one drink of any alcohol without immediately feeling head pressure, tired, dizzy, anxious, rapid heart beat and somewhat depressed. The relaxing feeling I used to get is completely gone. What exactly is going on!

Dec 17, 2019 • Posted by Alanna

Hi Dani – it certainly sounds like your body is having trouble processing alcohol! Great info about the breathalyser – that could make for an interesting article in the future. Hope you’re feeling better soon! – Alanna

Dec 17, 2019 • Posted by Dani

This answers so much for me. It takes days to feel better… my face always gets red when consuming and the day after. I’m insanely puffy for days. My heart rate starts to race (almost an anxious feeling). The weird thing – a family member gave us a breathalyzer as a gag gift. For fun we tried it on ourselves and the next day when I was feeling awful. I was still blowing over the legal limit as if I had 4 glasses of wine and my husband – nothing. Completely processed it. It’s 3pm in the afternoon and I still feel like I could vomit. This article is very helpful. I think I’ll get tested, and just stay away from alcohol. I strongly suggest getting a breathalyzer from Amazon and testing yourselves the day after… interesting fact finding!

Oct 23, 2019 • Posted by Alanna

Hi Laurie – you’re not alone! Wine is a huge trigger for a lot of people, even if you’ve never had a reaction before. Sunset can help reduce those symptoms so you can have a glass of wine and not feel terrible :)

Oct 23, 2019 • Posted by Laurie

So sad! A few sips of white wine and my face instantly gets red and the areas around my nose and eyes & cheeks get super itchy. I feel like I’m having a massive hot flash with needle pricks in my face! I’m 44 and it just started within the last year. I’m gluten intolerant and have always made sure to drink GF options. I miss wine nights with friends 😩

Oct 23, 2019 • Posted by Laurie

Same as Anne! A few sips of white wine and my face instantly gets red and the areas around my nose and eyes & cheeks get super itchy. I feel like I’m having a massive hot flash with needle pricks in my face! I’m 44 and it just started within the last year. I’m gluten intolerant and have always made sure to drink GF options. I miss wine nights with friends 😩

Oct 14, 2019 • Posted by Anne

It started with beer. I would have an immediate reaction after 1 beer. Vomiting, nausea, headache, dizziness, stomach issues. I thought it was gluten so I stopped eating anything gluten. Now it happens with wine too. I’m so very sad 😞 but the symptoms are debilitating and I can’t function. The headaches last for days and the nausea is so uncomfortable that all I can do is stay in bed. This all started after age of 40. I can drink Guinness tho!

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