When you talk about an allergy to alcohol it may mean different things to different people. There are, in fact, three different meanings of the phrase.
One would be an actual allergy to alcohol, specifically the Ethanol found in alcohol. It is a phrase commonly used to describe the reaction that an alcoholic has once they have a drink. A third possibility for the phrase alcohol allergy would be using the phrase as a euphemism.
1. An Allergy to Alcohol is much like a Food Allergy
Similarly to those who experience varying food allergies, an allergy to alcohol means that when you drink you have a negative reaction to it. This would mean that you have an allergic physical reaction to alcohol.
The symptoms associated with an alcohol allergy are similar to those you would have with any other food allergy. Symptoms included would be:
- Tingling sensation in the mouth
- Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
- Breathing problems
- In extreme cases, anaphylactic shock may occur
What happens is your body mistakenly recognizes the alcohol or ethanol in it as an ‘invader’. Your immune system releases antibodies to fight the ‘invader’ and in doing so you suffer from various symptoms as listed above.
The reaction can be very serious resulting in death if the throat swells to such an extent that it becomes impossible to breathe. An allergy to alcohol should be taken seriously as it does pose a dangerous risk to a person’s health.
An actual allergy to ethyl alcohol is relatively rare. An allergy to alcohol means that your body will react to even the smallest amount of the substance.
For those who do have an alcohol allergy, they may have experienced an allergic reaction to other foods such as mouthwash and cough syrups. It is advisable that you consult a doctor if you should suffer a reaction to any food.
For an individual to receive a diagnosis for an alcohol allergy, their doctor would need to take a blood sample to look for the specific antibodies associated with an alcohol allergy. They may also need to have other skin and blood tests may be done.
More common than an individual having an alcohol allergy, would be someone with an intolerance to alcohol. Alcohol intolerance is when your digestive system reacts to alcohol. This is usually a reaction to an ingredient in the drink that causes the physical symptoms.
Having a physical reaction to ingredients such as wheat or grapes would likely be observed before an individual has their first drink. Should that occur, a person may know beforehand that drinking could be problematic for them.
For individuals with an alcohol intolerance, they would be able to drink without the dangerous physical concerns associated with an alcohol allergy. They will, however, experience a range of physical side effect. Possible alcohol intolerance side effects would include:
- Facial redness (flushing)
- Red, itchy skin bumps (hives)
- Worsening of pre-existing asthma
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Low blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
An allergy is generally more dangerous and it affects the immune system. An alcohol intolerance does not necessarily warrant a visit to your doctor, however it should be discussed with them at your next visit. If any pain is experienced, contacting your doctor would be appropriate.
For individuals who have an alcohol allergy or alcohol intolerance, there is no cure for the condition. Doctors may be able to treat some of the symptoms experienced such as a rash or the hives.
The recommendation would be that an individual with either of these conditions avoid consuming alcohol and other foods with ethanol in it.
Alcoholic drinks can trigger a wide array of allergic and allergic-like responses, like itching, redness, rhinitis, facial swelling, cough, headache, and asthma.
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2. Alcoholism is an Allergic Reaction to Alcohol
A lot of East Asians are intolerant to even very modest amounts of alcohol. These people accumulate acetaldehyde, the key metabolite of ethanol, because of a genetic polymorphism of aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) that processes acetaldehyde to nontoxic acetate.
‘…true alcoholism is an allergic state, the result of gradually increasing sensitization by alcohol over a more or less extended period of time.” W.D.Silkworth, 1937.
The view that alcoholism is an allergic reaction to alcohol contends that it is one of two characteristics common to alcoholics. It is also the one held by Alcoholics Anonymous and its millions of members worldwide. For some, thinking of addiction in this manner can help them better understand the disease concept of addiction.
AA members believe drink dependency to be a mental and physical disease.
- Mental because it is an obsession of the mind- the sufferer cannot resist a drink despite knowing the negative consequences of having one. Feeling a loss of control and preoccupation with drinking are examples of the mental effects of alcohol. The obsession contributes to the amount of a time an alcoholic would spend thinking about and planning drinking.
- Physical because when drink is taken the sufferer’s body has an allergic reaction to it and craves more. The sufferer cannot stop drinking.
The physical aspect of the disease is largely impacted by the way that addiction changes the process in a person’s brain. Addiction is commonly referred to as a “brain disease”. This is the allergy aspect of alcoholism.
If we think about a person who has an allergy to peanuts, we know that if they are around or consume peanuts they will have an unpleasant reaction. This is why peanuts are not as common on air planes and children are encouraged to not bring peanut butter to school.
Similarly, if an alcoholic were to have a drink, they would experience unpleasant consequences. If you have an allergy to peanuts, you probably avoid them as much as possible.
For an alcoholic, this may include not being around alcohol and others who are drinking as you wouldn’t be around peanuts with a peanut allergy.
A significant difference between the two scenarios is that an alcoholic will continue to drink even though they are experiencing negative consequences. The belief that alcohol is an allergy for alcoholics views the mental characteristic as the reasoning behind an alcoholics continued drinking.
The mental obsession can be controlled, however the allergy cannot. That is why one of the main messages of AA is to avoid picking up the first drink at all costs. Once you have that first drink, the allergy sets in and you, or your body, is out of control.
BOTH of these characteristics are present in those who are alcoholic.
It must be stressed, however, that, despite the monopoly AA and the 12 step model have on treatment and recovery from alcoholism, there are alternative treatment programs. These options would include detox centers, inpatient rehabilitation, outpatient rehabilitation and other support groups related to drinking alcohol.
Nonetheless, healthcare professionals must first take a look at a patient’s medical history, physical exam, symptoms, and laboratory test results to make a proper diagnosis and recommend a rehabilitation program.educational levels
3. 'Alcohol Allergy' is a Euphemism
Many people say they can’t drink because they are allergic to alcohol.
The reason for this may be associated with the stigma that is commonly associated with an alcohol addiction. For some, it may be easier to say you suffer from something that is perceived to be beyond your control (i.e. an allergy) than say you are alcoholic. This could be true for individuals in the varying stages of alcoholism.
Stigma for alcoholism would include that some individuals still see alcoholics as being weak and responsible for their drinking problem. Others may associate alcoholism with a person’s socioeconomic status or ethnicity. Research has shown that these assumptions are incorrect, yet some still hold them to be truth.
I have yet to learn of someone who consciously decided that they wanted to be an alcoholic. A common experience is for a person to abuse alcohol and eventually transition into being physically dependent on it.
Drinking is a norm in many European and Western countries which can add to the development of an alcohol addiction.
The stigma associated with alcoholism can be a contributing factor for someone delaying getting help or accepting that their drinking is a concern. They may be worried that admitting that they have a drinking problem will tarnish their reputation or how others perceive them.
A common worry is that being an alcoholic would have a negative impact on their career and/or family.
So how do we work towards ending the stigma associated with alcoholism? A piece of it would be talking about addiction to make it personal and educating the others about the disease concept of addiction.
This is a large task, and is not for one person to do alone. If an alcoholic talks about their experience with one person in their life to reduce the stigma, that would be one less person to contribute to its continuance.
The truth is that alcoholism does not discriminate and has impacted individuals in many countries, of many different cultures, of different social standings, of varying levels of income and of different educational levels.
Even though a real alcohol allergy is very rare, and the reaction could be serious, a lot of allergic reactions to alcohol are because of an ingredient in alcohol. Each individual’s body chemistry and make-up vary, so a person’s response to alcohol could differ greatly. A genuine alcohol allergy could be hereditary or tends to be inherited.
Alcohol abuse can harm you in more ways than one. That’s why it is important to put a stop to it before it makes matters worse for the alcoholic. There are many different treatment options.
If you or someone close to you wants help and advice on quitting drinking then take a look at the following pages:
I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. I have since settled in North Carolina. I have experience working with various stages of addiction, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, trauma, stages of life concerns and relationship concerns.
I tend to use a person-centered approach which simply means that I meet you where you are and work collaboratively to help you identify and work towards accomplishing goals. I will often pull from CBT when appropriate. I do encourage use of mindfulness and meditation and practice these skills in my own life. I believe in treating everyone with respect, sensitivity and compassion.
I recognize that reaching out for help is hard and commend you for taking the first step. We have professionals available who would be happy to help you move closer to reaching your goals related to your drinking concerns. You may reach these professionals by calling 877-322-2694.