Many people enjoy a beer or glass of wine in the evening to help unwind after a busy day. But when you have a drink, do you find that your face flushes? Or shortly after, do you experience stomach cramps?
If so, you may have alcohol intolerance.
What is alcohol intolerance?
When somebody has an alcohol intolerance their body’s metabolism is affected, which means they convert alcohol differently to those without an intolerance.
One of the enzymes in our bodies, known as alcohol dehydrogenase, metabolises the alcohol we drink. Those with alcohol intolerance have a genetic polymorphism of this enzyme, which means it isn’t able to metabolise alcohol in the same way. That means, your body isn’t able to convert alcohol so it becomes non-toxic. As a result, it can lead to unpleasant side effects such as flushing, diarrhea, and heart palpitations.
It’s an inherited disorder, which means at least one of your parents may suffer from similar symptoms after a drink.
Is it common?
It’s thought that between 5-10% of people have alcohol intolerance. However, it can be difficult to get a figure that represents the general population, as many people confuse alcohol intolerance with the normal effects associated with alcohol consumption.
Side effects such as flushing and feeling warm are often considered a normal reaction to drinking alcohol, and so alcohol intolerance is rarely considered. Only when people suffer from the more unpleasant side effects, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and heart palpitations do they start to question the cause.
What are the symptoms of alcohol intolerance?
The signs that you may have alcohol intolerance vary from person to person, but can include any of the following:
- Difficulty breathing
- Cold-like symptoms (blocked nose, sneezing)
- Heart flutters
- A drop in blood pressure
Many of these symptoms are often mistaken for a hangover, as sometimes it can be a similar feeling.
The most common signs of intolerance are nausea and flushing. If you frequently experience these when drinking alcohol – even just a small amount – there’s a possibility that you have alcohol intolerance.
It’s also important to note that excessive alcohol consumption can cause some of the above symptoms in those who don’t have an intolerance. When drinking alcohol, ensure you’re doing so safely and in moderation.
Is alcohol intolerance the same as an allergy?
No, alcohol intolerance isn’t the same thing as an alcohol allergy.
As previously mentioned, intolerance to alcohol means your body metabolises alcohol differently, as it struggles to convert alcohol into a non-toxic acid.
An alcohol allergy is caused by your immune system, which has an overreactive response when alcohol enters your system. There is also the possibility that you’re allergic to one of the ingredients in the alcohol, rather than the alcohol itself.
The symptoms of an alcohol allergy aren’t exactly the same as when you have an intolerance. Symptoms of an allergy include:
- Severe cramps
- Abdominal swelling or bloating
- Itchy skin
If you experience any of these symptoms after drinking alcohol it may be a sign of an allergy. In some rare instances, an allergy to alcohol can be dangerous, but fortunately, alcohol allergies are quite rare. Speak to your doctor if you suspect you may have an allergy.
Can you develop alcohol intolerance later in life?
Yes, it’s possible that you can show symptoms of alcohol intolerance later in life, despite having drunk alcohol with no problems in the past.
In some cases, it’s also possible that the signs of alcohol intolerance are actually symptoms of another illness, such as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. However, this is very rare.
Is there a treatment or cure for alcohol intolerance?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to cure or treat alcohol intolerance or allergy. You may be able to lessen some of the symptoms of intolerance with over-the-counter medicines, such as antihistamines. It’s advised that you speak to your doctor before trying this.
If you have an intolerance to one of the ingredients in your drink, you may be simply able to avoid drinks containing that particular ingredient in the future. However, it may be difficult and time-consuming to pinpoint what this is – and will be impossible if it’s the alcohol you have an intolerance to.
If you do have alcohol intolerance, the only effective way to manage the symptoms is by avoiding alcohol completely.
How can you see if you have alcohol intolerance?
The fastest and most accurate way to check whether or not you have alcohol intolerance is by taking a food and drink intolerance test. You will be able to take the test at home and receive accurate results that will confirm whether you have an intolerance.
Browse our tests and check to see if you have alcohol intolerance.
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.