Alcohol Allergies Can Cause Sneezing, Flushing, Headache

Watch that glass of red wine or hoppy beer if you have food allergies.

Dec. 24, 2012— -- Kristin Brown loved to drink – perhaps partied a little too much when she was in her 20s, but when she hit her 30s, alcohol suddenly hit her the wrong way.

"It wasn't always that way, so you can imagine my shock and dismay the first time it happened," she told

"At the age of 35 I was sitting on the couch with my husband after the kids went to bed, when I took two sips of Jack Daniels. I set my glass down and gasped for air. I felt feverish and sweaty, my face became splotchy-red, my hands itched, and my hearing dulled."

Brown, now 42 and the mother of three, writes about her love-hate relationship with alcohol in her self-published book, "What Didn't Kill Me."

She has tried different types of alcohol -- vodka, whiskey or tequila -- but she breaks out in hives and a fever. After just a few "tiny sips," thinking she will be fine, Brown said she ends up "going down the same dreadful path Jack Daniels led me down."

Though she has never been officially diagnosed and at first thought it was a "fluke," Brown said she is sure she has an allergy to alcohol, which can put a crimp in anyone's holiday celebrations.

Alcohol allergies are possible at any age, but they are not common, affecting less than 5 percent of all people who suffer from food allergies, according to Dr. Clifford Bassett, clinical assistant professor in the division of infectious disease and immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

"You can get wheezing and asthma symptoms or hives," said Bassett. Those who already suffer from asthma seem to be more vulnerable," he said.

If a person suspects they have an allergy, it's important they be evaluated by a specialist.

Wine contains proteins from grapes, bacteria, and yeast, as well as sulfites and other organic compounds. Other studies have found that egg whites and gelatin are often used in the filtration processing of wine.

"It's something you don't think of," said Bassett.

Other symptoms can be a flushed or tickling face or a sense of warmth. Others can get a runny rose or headaches.

Yeast, molds used in brewing beer from barley can cause chemical reactions that produce histamines and tyramines. Tyramines are amino acid products that are associated with headaches and hypertension. Histamine is an organic nitrogen compound involved in immune or allergic responses.

A protein on the skin of a grape, mostly those in red wines, can contribute to symptoms in those who already have allergies, according to a German study.

People can also have an oral allergy syndrome -- a reaction to fresh fruit and vegetables that may be used as a garnish or a mixer in a cocktail, according to Bassett. Hazelnut or almond in liquor can also be a problem for those with an allergy to nuts.

Alcohol can also exacerbate existing allergies. In one 2005 Swedish study, those with asthma, bronchitis and hay fever were more apt to sneeze, get a runny nose or have "lower-airway symptoms" after a drink, especially women. Wine – both red and white – were often the worst offenders.

In 2008, a Danish study of thousands of women found that two glasses of wine a day can double the risk for allergy symptoms, according to an article published in the journal of Clinical and Experimental Allergy.

"If you have a seasonal pollen allergy to grass or trees and there is a high-pollen day and you eat a piece of fruit or mango, apple or pear, [the body] thinks it's swallowing pollen and you can get an itchy mouth or throat and the allergy is worse."

Some people have an intolerance to the alcohol itself, according to Bassett. They can "feel sick" or even experience a migraine.

Those of Irish and Scottish descent -- about 1 percent of the population -- are prone to celiac disease, an allergy to gluten in wheat, barley and rye. They may find whisky and bourbon intolerable.

"Most sake is fine," said Bassett. "That's made from rice."

Ethnicity can make a difference. Asians, particularly those of Chinese, Japanese or Korean descent, can experience a "flush syndrome" when drinking alcohol because of troubles with digestion, according to Bassett.

Bassett said those who have difficulty with alcohol should work with an allergist to minimize risk.

"Nonalcoholic beer is safer for the holidays," said Bassett. "Nonalcoholic drinks can be made to accommodate and keep people healthy and happy at the same time."

As for Kristen Brown, she has had to give up alcohol almost entirely.

Now, if she even tries liquor, "all hell breaks loose," said Brown. "I can't even drink the tiniest little bit or I get sick right away."

Oddly, she can't drink hard spirits, but has no problem with a bottle of Guinness beer. "Once a year, at least one friend brings me a six-pack of Guinness for my birthday."