This Wine Is Making Me Feel... Sneezy?

Cursed, blessed wine. Since ancient times, this drink has been simultaneously touted for its health benefits and blamed for its tortuous side effects.

A single glass with dinner may protect the heart, but it can send others into a wheezing attack with a bad headache, flushed face and runny nose.

"I, too, have experienced the stuffy nose after a glass of wine," said Sloane Miller, a food allergy coach and advocate, who is also president of Allergic Girl Resources Inc. in New York City.

Miller said the symptoms can get worse since she has found that wine frequently compounds her other food allergies. "It seems between the stuffy nose and the skin irritation that there's a reaction," said Miller.

Reports of wine allergy are usually relegated to symptoms after drinking a glass, but this Monday the U.K.'s Telegraph featured a teenager who reportedly falls into sneezing fits anytime she smells it.

"I only have to see a glass of wine and it sends me off which can be incredibly annoying for my friends, but it happens so often they have almost got used to it," Leah Miller told the Telegraph.

Leah's sneezing symptoms may be one-of-a-kind, but plenty of adults occasionally find themselves with pounding headaches and congestion from a glass.

Despite these common reactions to wine, allergists say a true wine allergy is a fluke at best, and a controversial misnomer at worse.

Allergy or Reflex?

"If you ask people if they have an allergic reaction to wine … about 8 percent of the population will say 'yes, alcohol will cause me to have an allergic reaction,'" said Dr. Marc Riedl, section head of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at the University of California in Los Angeles.

That study, which only looked at northern Europeans, might have reported even higher statistics in other parts of the world. A metabolic phenomenon called "alcohol flush reaction" is common among people of East Asian decent, and is commonly called an allergy.

Riedl and other allergists have heard the range of complaints: patients get headaches, they may get flushed, and they even get a runny nose. But they insist not all mucus that runs is an allergy.

"There are a handful of people reported in the medical literature who were allergic to something in the grape," said Dr. Brian Vickery, medical instructor in the department of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

But a lot more goes into a bottle of wine than grapes. Take sulfites, which are commonly blamed for allergies. Vineyards add sulfites to wine to keep it from spoiling into vinegar too quickly.

Despite their notoriety, allergists say the chances of someone responding to sulfites are one in 100. Even when sulfites cause problems, doctors are debating whether it is technically an allergy.

"It's not an allergy, it's a reflex," explained Dr. N. Franklin Adkinson, professor at Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center in Baltimore, Md. That means wheezing and chest tightness similar to an asthma attack, rather than hives or the possibility of going into anaphylaxis with an allergy.

Especially among asthmatics, sulfites act as irritants to the nose and lungs in a similar way as cigarette smoke and perfume can.

"You're not really allergic to the cologne if you start sneezing," said Dr. Clifford W. Bassett, vice chair of the Public Education Committee at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and a professor at New York University.

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