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Alcohol intolerance can result in immediate, uncomfortable reactions after drinking alcohol. The most common symptoms are a stuffy nose and skin flushing.1
Alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition in which the body can’t break down alcohol efficiently. The only way to avoid these uncomfortable reactions is by not drinking.
However, alcohol intolerance isn’t a true allergy. In some cases, what seems to be alcohol intolerance can be a reaction to something in a drink.
Combining alcohol with certain medications can also cause reactions.
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Common signs and symptoms of alcohol intolerance (or a reaction to ingredients in a drink) include:1
Rarer, more severe signs and complications of alcohol intolerance or other reactions to alcohol include:
If you or someone else experiences serious signs or complications of alcohol intolerance or another reaction to alcohol, seek medical help.
Alcohol intolerance occurs when the body doesn’t have the proper enzymes to metabolize the toxins in alcohol. This is caused by genetic traits most commonly found in Asian people.
These ingredients include:
Some reactions can be triggered by a true allergy to grain, like corn, wheat, rye, or another substance in alcoholic drinks. In rare cases, severe pain following alcohol use is a sign of a more serious medical problem, like Hodgkin’s lymphoma.2
Risk factors for alcohol intolerance or other reactions to alcoholic drinks include:1
A mild intolerance to alcohol or a particular ingredient in alcoholic drinks won’t usually require a trip to the doctor.
Most people simply need to:1
However, if you experience a serious reaction or severe pain, see your doctor as soon as possible. Additionally, if your symptoms seem to be linked to an allergy or medication you’re using, visit your doctor.
There are various steps for diagnosing and treating alcohol intolerance:
If you develop symptoms after drinking alcohol, see your doctor. Depending on your symptoms, they may refer you to an allergist for testing and treatment. An allergist is a type of doctor who focuses on allergic conditions.
Your allergist will likely ask you questions about your symptoms and medical history, including:
If your doctor suspects you have a true allergy to alcohol or another ingredient typically found in alcoholic drinks, they’ll perform allergy testing.
The most common form of allergy testing is the skin prick test. During a skin prick test, your allergist will use a lancet to scratch or prick your skin. They’ll add a drop of allergen extract to the pricked or scratched area. Your skin’s reaction can help them determine whether you have an allergy.
Your allergist may also use an oral challenge test to diagnose an intolerance or allergy. For this test, they’ll ask you to drink a sample of your suspected trigger. They’ll assess any symptoms you develop and might conduct blood tests.
Allergy testing should always be conducted in a medical setting, as it can occasionally trigger a severe allergic reaction. It’s essential to have immediate medical treatment available.
If you have a true alcohol allergy, the only way to prevent symptoms is by avoiding alcohol altogether. Even a small amount of alcohol can lead to a severe reaction.
People with a true alcohol allergy should:
Some foods include alcohol as an added ingredient. If you’re allergic to another ingredient in certain alcoholic drinks, switching to a different beverage might be an option. For example, barley is often found in beer but not wine.
If you have a non-allergic intolerance to alcohol, histamine, sulfites, or other ingredients of alcoholic drinks, your doctor may encourage you to reduce or avoid certain types of alcohol.
Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescribed medications might help reduce symptoms. If you’re unsure about treatment, speak to your doctor for more information about your diagnosis and treatment options.
Alcohol intolerance is a permanent, lifelong condition. However, you can avoid the symptoms and enjoy a healthy, active life by taking some precautions.
The best way to live with alcohol intolerance is by avoiding alcohol as much as possible. Try nonalcoholic drinks as substitutes for your favorite alcoholic beverages.
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