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Are You Allergic to Alcohol or Have You an Intolerance to Its Additives?

Updated on March 18, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

Alcohol is common in social gatherings.
Alcohol is common in social gatherings. | Source

Alcohol Allergy or Intolerance?

Some people say they are allergic to alcohol, but it may be they are intolerant to additives in the alcohol. A true allergic reaction to alcohol is rare although it does happen. It's more common for someone to be intolerant to gluten, yeast, sulfides or vinegar, rather than to be allergic to the alcohol itself. All of these additives are commonly used in commercially produced alcoholic drinks.

The symptoms of food allergy and food intolerance are similar, but their causes are different. An allergic reaction is when your body creates antibodies to fight something it sees as harmful. Food intolerance means you are unable to properly digest a foodstuff or additive and it therefore causes irritation to your digestive system.

Why Are There Additives in Liquor?

Commercially produced wines and beers often include sulfides and proteins. They may also include other additives. Any of these additives may be causing your symptoms and not all have to be included on the label ingredient list.

The brewing and winemaking industries use many additives and producers say that commercial pressures have made the use of these the norm rather than the exception. Each additive has a specific function. For example one may improve the clarity of the liquid, another may alter the final taste of the liquor or extend the product’s shelf-life. Some of the more common additives to liquor are sulfides, egg and seafood proteins, and gluten.

Additives to Alcohol (Beer, Wine and Spirits) and Their Purpose

Sodium metabisulphite
Used to clean equipment
1 in 10 asthmatics react to sulphides
Sulfur dioxide (sulfides)
Extends shelf life (anti-oxidant and anti-microbial)
1 in 10 asthmatics react to sulphides
Adds color
Can trigger urticaria and asthma
Sodium benzoate
Extends shelf life
Can trigger urticaria and asthma
Egg or Seafood proteins
Used to fine (clear) beer
Affects people with dairy or fish intolerance
Wheat or gluten
Adds body
Affects gluten intolerant indivduals (coeliac disease)
Pesticide residue on grapes

Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Consult Your Doctor

This article is for general information only. For health advice you should consult a medical doctor or nurse practitioner.

Different Symptoms for Food Allergy v Food Intolerance

The symptoms of allergy versus intolerance are different because their root cause differs.

Food allergies cause your body to produce histamines. Histamines are designed to fight harmful substances that have entered your body. In an allergic individual, histamine production goes into overdrive and the body's reaction is out of proportion to the potential threat. Allergy warning signs are itching, rashes and raised wheals. In severe cases, a patient can go into anaphylactic shock which can result in death. The symptoms of alcohol allergy are similar to those of other allergies (e.g. peanut allergy, hay-fever, or animal dander.)

Food intolerance is a condition of the digestive system. An affected individual will have symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps, i.e. they are all linked to the digestive tract. Alcohol intolerance (unlike an allergy to alcohol) is not life-threatening.

Do you suffer from alcohol allergy or intolerance?

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Dirty glasses at the end of a boozy night out with friends.
Dirty glasses at the end of a boozy night out with friends. | Source

What To Do If You Think You Are Allergic to Alcohol

To assist diagnosis it is useful to keep A Food Diary that Tracks your Triggers and Symptoms in which you note down everything you eat or drink. You also write down any symptoms you experience and when they occur. This will help your physician identify cause and effect.

  1. If your symptoms match those described above, you may have an allergy or intolerance to alcohol. (e.g an allergic reaction such as a rash or reddening of the skin; or a disturbance to your digestive system such as diarrhea, vomiting or stomach cramps.
  2. You may only get these symptoms after you drink one particular type of liquor. In order to pinpoint the culprit, you should stop drinking any kind of alcohol for 2 to 3 weeks. This will cleanse your system. You can then limit yourself to one form of alcoholic drink and see if the original symptoms recur.
  3. If you have a repeat experience of the symptoms, then remove this particular alcoholic drink from your diet. However it is not always easy to self-diagnose. You may need to consult a physician for help with the diagnosis.
  4. If your symptoms are severe and acute, you should get medical assistance immediately.
  5. It is possible that you intolerant to something you have eaten rather than to the alcohol you drank.

How to Avoid Additives in Alcohol

The two main additives in alcohol that cause intolerance problems are sulfides and gluten. If you live in the United States you may have noticed wine bottle labels have information about whether or not they contain sulfides. However, the US is the only country where it is a legal requirement to show this on the label. If you drink wine, beer or other alcohol overseas, you are much less likely to have this information on the bottle.

Look out for wines that are labelled as organic or organically produced. These will be sulfide-free as they are made without the use of chemicals.

People who know they are gluten intolerant (coeliac disease) already know they need to be extra careful and read the small print on food labels. Fermented wheat is a common ingredient in beers and spirits even if it is not the main grain used. The list of ingredients on these drinks may not specify wheat or gluten, but may contain them in disguise. Commercial confidentiality and “secret recipes” mean that these lists are not always as clear as they could be. If you contact the manufacturer and explain you are gluten-intolerant, most will be happy to tell you whether or not you are able to drink their product.

This Article Is Not About Hangovers

If you experience symptoms like nausea, migraine, headache, a raging thirst, or other hangover-like symptoms … then you probably have a hangover and not a food intolerance or alcohol allergy. This article is not about hangovers.


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