What is Alcohol Intolerance?

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Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 10/27/2021

Alcohol intolerance occurs when someone's body can't process alcohol properly and it struggles to break the substance down in the body. Alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition and some of the common symptoms include flushed skin, a runny nose, facial redness, nausea, and even low blood pressure. There are also other chemicals found in alcohol that can lead to intolerance like sulfates, grains, and histamine.

How Common is Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance is more common than an alcohol allergy but it's still uncommon. One study of 948 people in a wine-cultivating area showed that 7.2% of people who consumed wine came down with common allergy symptoms like runny nose, flushed skin, and more. Moreover, of the 7.2% of people that reported symptoms only 2% had a medical allergy.

These studies provide context about how and why alcohol intolerance happens. Based on the data there is a correlation between how the alcohol is made and produced. Therefore, alcohol intolerance is based on what's in the alcoholic beverage not specifically the alcohol itself.

Who Might Have Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition that occurs most often in Asian populations. The groups that are affected the most are East Asian populations because this group is more likely to have the genetic mutation that causes alcohol intolerance. That said, anyone can have the enzyme and genetic mutation that causes alcohol intolerance; East Asian populations just have a higher rate of developing the condition.

What are the Symptoms of Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance has symptoms similar to most allergies. That said, symptoms vary from person to person. Some people might experience a runny nose, while others might experience a plethora of allergy symptoms.

The most common symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:

  • Facial Redness: The face will appear red or flushed.

  • Nausea: Stomach discomfort can lead to the urge to vomit.

  • Vomiting: Vomiting can occur depending on how much alcohol is consumed.

  • Runny nose: Sniffles

  • Congestion: Hard to breathe from the nose.

  • Hypotension: Low blood pressure.

  • Diarrhea: Loose stool.

  • Worsening Asthma: Asthma symptoms worsen over continued use.

People can experience a range of symptoms but these are the most common.

What is Alcohol Flush Syndrome?

Alcohol flushing syndrome happens when the body struggles to break down a toxin known as acetaldehyde, which is produced by the body in response to drinking alcohol. Alcohol flushing syndrome is a sign of alcohol intolerance and happens to people whose bodies have a difficult time clearing acetaldehyde. Symptoms of alcohol flush syndrome vary but most people will suffer from flushed skin, nausea, vomiting, and congestion.

What are the Causes of Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance is caused by the body's inability to break down acetaldehyde, a chemical produced by the body to break down alcohol. That said, alcohol intolerance can also be caused by other factors like how the alcohol was made and even where it was made.

Here are the common causes of alcohol intolerance:

  • The inability to breakdown acetaldehyde that's produced in the body as a response to consuming alcohol 

  • Genetics play a large role, especially in East Asian populations

  • Chemicals that cause adverse reactions in the body

  • Preservatives

  • Grains, especially for people with celiac disease 

  • Histamine, which is the byproduct of brewing and the fermentation process 

There are many things in alcohol that can cause intolerance. More often than not, it's the additional additives or the process in which it was brewed that causes an intolerance.

What are the Risk Factors of Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance comes with several risk factors and many of them are based on genetics and other allergic reactions.

Below are the risk factors for alcohol intolerance:

  • Being of Asian Descent (East Asian is higher)

  • Having food allergies, especially grains 

  • Having Hodgkin's lymphoma 

  • Having asthma 

  • Having hay fever 

While symptoms vary from person to person, these conditions can increase the risk of alcohol intolerance.

What are the Complications of Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance leads to complications that range from minor discomfort to serious side effects. The intensity of symptoms depends on how intolerant someone is to alcohol.

Below are the complications of alcohol intolerance:

  • Worse asthma symptoms 

  • Vomiting 

  • Diarrhea and dehydration 

  • Flushed skin 

  • Sweating 

  • Congestion

  • Hives and itchy skin

  • Low blood pressure

  • Fainting 

  • Runny nose 

  • Migraines

  • Severe allergic reactions 

Symptoms like runny nose and flushing are not dangerous but low blood pressure and worsening asthma symptoms can lead to serious complications.

Is There a Prevention Method for Alcohol Intolerance?

Unfortunately, no there are no ways to prevent alcohol intolerance. Alcohol intolerance is based on genetic factors and allergies, so it's a challenging condition to treat. That said, the best way to prevent the condition is to avoid alcohol or drink in moderation. Moreover, drinking fewer drinks in a session can reduce the symptoms and give your body more time to clear the toxins.

How Long Will I Have Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance is a permanent condition. If it's something that you have it will be with you for life because there is no way to treat it. That said, some types of alcohol intolerance can be avoided. If you're someone who's allergic to grains having alcohol that doesn't have grains you can avoid suffering from alcohol intolerance symptoms.

How to Test Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance can be tested with an ethanol pad. An ethanol pad is a simple test performed by a healthcare provider that involves placing a gauze pad with ethanol on it onto your arm for 7 minutes. If your skin turns red, becomes itchy, or has hives, you're alcohol intolerant.

While the ethanol pad tests for intolerance to alcohol, other tests can tell you if you're intolerant to foods and grains within alcohol. Your healthcare provider can test your blood for an elevated immune response to substances like grains. Furthermore, doctors can perform a skin test. A skin test consists of a prick to your skin that exposes it to the grains within alcohol. If you have an allergy to the substance your skin will develop bumps, redness, or hives.

Can I Continue to Drink Alcohol if I Have Alcohol Intolerance?

Yes, you can continue to drink alcohol if you have alcohol intolerance. That said, you'll have to manage uncomfortable symptoms and monitor your health. To avoid complications you should drink responsibly and limit the number of drinks you consume during each session.

If you're someone with asthma you shouldn't drink alcohol if you're alcohol intolerant because it can cause symptoms to worsen.

Yes, alcohol intolerance can develop with age. You can develop a type of alcohol intolerance known as alcohol sensitivity. As people get older the body loses muscle mass, stores more fat, and holds onto less water. These changes cause blood alcohol levels to rise faster than younger counterparts. Therefore, staying in good health can prevent alcohol sensitivity from developing.

Risk factors for alcohol sensitivity include aging, being overweight, and changes to the liver.

Is Alcohol Intolerance the Same as an Alcohol Allergy?

No, alcohol intolerance is not the same as an alcohol allergy. Alcohol intolerance is the body's inability to process alcohol efficiently or an allergy to a substance within alcohol. It's not a direct allergy to alcohol. An alcohol allergy is when someone is allergic to alcohol. Like other allergies, the body will treat alcohol as a foreign invader and produce antibodies to fight it. 

Alcohol allergies are serious and can cause major side effects depending on how the body responds.

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Thomas Roth
Lead Editor

Thomas has been working in the substance abuse industry for over 3 years and he's made it his mission to help those in need. Tom started out by writing content to help people find addiction treatment centers near their location. Once he understood the value in the words he wrote Tom shifted to outreach, editing, and content creation. If nothing else, Tom wants to see those who struggle with Alcohol abuse disorder recover.