Some people drinking beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages may develop a flushed face, itching, hives or even nausea and vomiting. Although an allergy to alcohol is rare, you might be allergic to ingredients in beer and wine, or simply have an intolerance to alcohol. People of Asian descent are more likely to lack a chemical that breaks down alcohol, and should be careful how much they drink.
How it occurs
Having an allergic reaction to alcohol is uncommon, but people with asthma and those of Asian origins are more susceptible to reactions, which usually occur within a few minutes to hours after drinking. Some drinkers feel an itching or tingling in and around their mouths, and their lips, tongue or throat may swell. In some cases, alcohol causes difficulty in breathing, skin rashes and lightheadedness.
An allergy to food or drink triggers your immune system. That system wrongly identifies a certain food or ingredient as dangerous, spurring certain cells to make immunoglobulin E antibodies to battle the culprit.
Consider the source
You may have to analyze other ingredients in your drink to find the source. One in 100 adults is allergic to sulfites, an ingredient in wine or grapes that prevents discoloration. If you're allergic, you will react by wheezing and having a stuffy or runny nose. About 5 percent of all asthmatics may have an allergic reaction to alcohol. Other foods with sulfites include dried fruit that's not browned, vinegar, some kinds of shrimp, commercially prepared potato products, sauerkraut and pickles. A few wines use fish products and beers contain barley, wheat or rye.
Drinkers who are deficient in the chemical alcohol dehydrogenase, which dissolves alcohol, may get severe flushing. They might also get intoxicated very quickly and experience nausea or vomiting. In that case, consider whether you have relatives with alcohol problems. If you hail from an Asian country, you might have a genetic disorder that doesn't allow you to make enough of this chemical. Other drinkers who get flushed may be taking medicines such as niacin or eczema creams. Metronidazole, a synthetic antimicrobial drug that treats vaginal, intestinal and other infections, might be the culprit. Disulfiram, which is used to treat alcoholics, interferes with the metabolic breakdown of alcohol and can cause flushing. You can analyze all your medicines and herbs that you are taking to isolate the problem. People with the skin condition rosacea also may flush when drinking. If you have very red cheeks but the skin around your eyes remains pale, you blush easily and you tend to break out on your lower face, you may have rosacea. Ask your primary care doctor to confirm the diagnosis and treat it.
Research shows that some people who develop a flush when drinking may have an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus and liver disease. In a few rare cases, severe pain after drinking may be a symptom of a more serious disease, the cancer called Hodgkin's lymphoma. If you have unusual symptoms after consuming alcohol, visit your doctor.