Alcohol Allergy - Rehab Guide

Alcohol Allergy

Alcohol Allergy

Alcohol intolerance

An alcohol allergy is a set of dangerous, potentially life-threatening symptoms in the body from a toxic reaction to the active ingredients in alcohol or ethanol.

Suffering from a true alcohol allergy is extremely rare, but it does happen, and the effects can be deadly.

More commonly, some people have an intolerance to alcohol which manifests in several troublesome symptoms, in varying degrees of severity.

If you or a loved one are worried, you may be allergic to alcohol or have an intolerance to alcohol or its ingredients, and you can find out more by reading this page.

What is an Alcohol Allergy?

Some people may be allergic to a particular ingredient contained within certain types of alcohol. The allergic reaction does not result from ethanol but is triggered by ingesting a particular ingredient. These people will have the same reaction to other foods and substances that contain the common ingredient.

Any allergic reaction, regardless of the trigger, is extremely dangerous and can become life-threatening.

Like most true allergies, the body has a severe and toxic reaction to a substance that has been consumed or has come into contact with.

The severity of a reaction will depend on the amount of alcohol consumed and its sensitivity.

Thankfully very few people are allergic to alcohol. However, for those who are, alcohol is a potentially fatal poison that should be avoided at all costs.

An alcohol allergy will present itself in severe symptoms shortly after consuming alcohol. An alcohol intolerance will take longer for symptoms to manifest.

Alcohol intolerance is far more common but harder to diagnose. The difference between an allergy to alcohol and an intolerance to alcohol will show in the severity of the symptoms and the time it takes between consuming alcohol and for the symptoms to show themselves.

The symptoms can often be mistaken for something else and either misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed as a result.

The symptoms of an alcohol allergy

In a person who suffers from an allergy to alcohol, the symptoms are caused by the body’s immune system overreacting to ethanol.

Someone can suffer an allergic reaction to even a very small amount of alcohol as little as 1ml pure alcohol (the equivalent to a mouth full of beer) can be enough to trigger the onset of symptoms.

Symptoms of an alcohol allergy include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fast/irregular heartbeat, leading to gasping for air
  • Severe disabling stomach cramps
  • Severe drop in blood pressure leading to fainting and collapse
  • Severe vomiting after exposure to only a small amount of alcohol
  • Mental confusion
  • Severe anxiety
  • Red rash on the body
  • Anaphylactic shock – swelling of the face, mouth, lips and airways (1)

Spotting the symptoms can be life-saving, especially if you can trace the source and relay that information to the medical staff treating the person.

If you or someone else develops any of the above symptoms, the emergency services should be contacted immediately.

If you have ever previously suffered an allergic reaction, we strongly recommend completely avoiding alcohol altogether.  For some that are allergic to alcohol, even coming into contact with ethanol can be enough to trigger an allergic reaction.

Be aware of the possibility of alcohol’s presence

With an alcohol allergy, you will always need to be on your guard regarding alcohol’s possible presence, especially if you are very sensitive to it.

Alcohol can come in many forms and be contained within many foods and everyday household and personal items.

Substances which often contain alcohol/ethanol

  • Cough mixtures and medicines
  • Perfumes
  • Hand sanitisers
  • Skincare products
  • Hygiene products
  • Mouth wash
  • Tomato purée
  • Marinades
  • Sauces
  • Cakes
  • Deserts
  • Soft drinks
  • Non-alcoholic drinks
  • Injectable medicines

A night out for a person allergic to alcohol can easily end in disaster by taking just a sip of the wrong drink or eating the wrong thing.

Alcohol intolerance, whilst not life-threatening, can cause very unpleasant and even painful symptoms.

Most people who know that they have an intolerance or the ingredients within alcohol will avoid completely or drink very little.

Some, however, will not realise that it is alcohol causing the symptoms they suffer and will continue to drink. Others, knowing they have an intolerance, will still drink as they crave the effect of alcohol more than they fear the probable consequences.

Deliberately drinking when you know you will be in pain and suffering could well qualify as an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Symptoms of alcohol intolerance

An alcohol intolerance symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on how sensitive the person is and how much consumed.

If you are aware you are intolerant, then you should only take small amounts to avoid severe discomfort, or ideally, completely avoid alcohol altogether.

If, on the other hand, you have an intolerance to a specific ingredient contained within certain alcoholic drinks, those drinks should be avoided to prevent triggering symptoms.

Alcohol’s ingredients that people can have an allergy or intolerance to include:

  • Alcohol/Ethanol
  • Barley
  • Grapes
  • Hops
  • Rye
  • Wheat
  • Yeast

Alcoholic drinks also contain sulphates as a form of preservative and histamines (produced during the fermentation process). Some people can also suffer an allergy or intolerance to these.

Symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Increased heart rate
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhoea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Excessive flushing and redness of the face
  • Hives
  • Aggravation of existing asthma (2)

Alcohol intolerance Aldehyde dehydrogenase ⟨ALDH2⟩ is caused by a metabolic disorder that is genetic in nature and is triggered by drinking alcohol.

It mainly manifests in digestive disorders but can also show its presence in other ways.

As the body processes alcohol, a toxic substance called acetaldehyde is produced and passes through the body’s system naturally.  Genetically, the enzymes that break down alcohol do not work as they should. This results in an accumulation of acetaldehyde in the bloodstream. It is the accumulation of this toxin that produces symptoms (e.g., nausea, headache, facial flushing, hives etc.) (2)

Diagnosing an alcohol allergy or alcohol intolerance

A specialist can test alcohol allergies and alcohol intolerance through a referral made by your GP or finding a private doctor.

Before referring you to a specialist, your doctor is likely to ask questions to help them determine the likelihood of an existing allergy or sensitivity to alcohol.

To help diagnose an alcohol allergy/alcohol intolerance, a doctor is likely to ask you the following questions:

  • Which alcoholic drinks trigger your symptoms?
  • What exactly are the symptoms you experience, and how long do they start after drinking alcohol?
  • When did the symptoms first start?
  • Do you have any other allergies or intolerances?
  • Do any of your relatives suffer from allergies or intolerances?

Your doctor will also examine the possibility of any other medical conditions you suffer from and medications you take causing an unpleasant reaction to alcohol.

Once you have been referred to a specialist doctor, a detailed account of your medical history will be taken, and a skin prick test performed. If the results are inconclusive, the specialist may administer a small amount of alcohol by mouth to confirm an allergy or intolerance.

alcohol allergy

Safely managing an alcohol allergy.

If you have ever experienced an allergic reaction to alcohol or any of the symptoms of an alcohol allergy, it is important to tell your GP and your pharmacist.

Your GP can arrange a specialist referral. Once your allergy is confirmed, you will be issued with a medical identification bracelet and epinephrine pen. Your GP can also be sure that any medicines prescribed or issued do not contain alcohol, as can your pharmacist.

If you know you are allergic to alcohol, you should wear a medical bracelet and carry an adrenaline pen at all times. The adrenaline pen will be required in the event of accidentally triggering an allergic reaction resulting in anaphylaxis.

Eating out at a bar or restaurant, it is always best to check with staff for completely alcohol-free foods and check the ingredients of any products you are buying for the presence of alcohol or ethanol.

Ensure that people you socialise with (who drink alcohol) know of the extent of your allergy. They can help to ensure your safety. However, it is wise to remember that as people drink, they become more intoxicated, becoming more careless and forgetful.

To ensure your safety at a party or social event, it is best to take your own non-alcoholic drinks and ensure they are never left open and unattended.

An alcohol allergy can be safely managed if you take the correct precautions and follow medical advice.

You can find out more information on managing anaphylaxis and allergic reactions at

Allergy UK org

Private Treatment for alcohol intolerances

If you suffer from an intolerance to alcohol yet still find you are unable to stop drinking and your life is miserable as a result, you may suffer from an alcohol use disorder. That being the case, Rehab Guide can help you find and access fast and effective alcohol treatment in your local area.

Call our experts at Rehab Guide today for a free, confidential assessment and advice around getting the right private alcohol help for your circumstances.


  1. ASCIA –  Austrlian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy
  2. NCBI – National Institutes on Health – H. Werner Goedde, Population Genetic Studies on Aldehyde Dehydrogenase Isozyme Deficiency and Alcohol Sensitivity, 1983
  3. Peng Y, et al. (2010). The ADH1B Arg47His polymorphism in East Asian populations and expansion of rice domestication in history.
  4. Allergy UK

Sign up to our Newsletters by Email