Despite being one of the most widespread substances on a global scale, some people cannot tolerate the drink. An estimated seven percent of adults are physically intolerant to alcohol. A study released by the German peer-reviewed science journal Deutsches Arzteblatt International showed that “wine intolerance” affects nearly 5.2 percent of men and 8.9 percent of women. The study questioned 4,000 people between the ages of 20 and 69, and 948 replied. 

Although the studies are limited, the resulting 1.7 percent shows that intolerance is still higher than initially thought. Researchers believe it’s as common as food intolerance. They go on to say that red wine provided the most symptoms from those in the study, and researchers found the participant felt flushed, itchy, and having nasal congestion. Intolerance could also be higher since they didn’t ask about headaches after drinking. 

Alcohol intolerance is a metabolic disorder inherited through genetics, and it will cause digestive upset and unpleasant sensations. Those who combine excessive alcohol use or addiction with alcohol intolerance can expect to have painful and potentially long-term effects on their health. 

What is Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance is a negative reaction in the body when alcohol is consumed. Your body will work to rid itself of the substance before it’s fully processed, and it can’t process alcohol since it lacks aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) enzyme. 

Our bodies use ALDH2 to break down acetaldehyde, a compound that builds up in a person’s system as they drink. When these enzymes don’t exist, the individual will experience various painful and uncomfortable symptoms if they consume even smaller amounts of alcohol. 

The most common symptoms of alcohol intolerance include the following:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Itchy and red skin bumps (hives)
  • Facial redness (flushing)
  • Low blood pressure
  • A worsening of asthma symptoms in those with the condition
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heart fluttering
  • Coughing
  • Swelling of the tongue or lips
  • Hypertension and headaches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Chest pain or fainting
  • Diarrhea

The reason behind alcohol intolerance is because the body lacks the necessary enzymes to process the drug. However, since not all symptoms will be similar across the board, it’s common for individuals to confuse an alcohol allergy with alcohol intolerance. 

Alcohol Allergy Vs. Alcohol Intolerance

Alcohol allergy and alcohol intolerance are commonly mistaken for one another, and despite being similar in some ways, they are very different. Symptoms of both conditions will appear shortly after you consume alcohol. The rapid severity of these symptoms will make it challenging to determine if it’s intolerance or an allergy. Although the symptoms may similarly present themselves, the root cause of the health concerns is different.

intolerance to alcohol

As was mentioned above, alcohol intolerance is a genetic disorder because of missing enzymes in our body. On the other hand, an alcohol allergy is caused by allergic reactions to the substance used to treat alcohol drinks or additives. 

It’s extremely rare for someone to be allergic to ethanol (alcohol) by itself. The primary source of alcohol allergies stems from components used to process and create alcoholic drinks. Additives are typically combined with pure ethanol to make it safe for consumption. In some cases, the additives used in the fermentation process for hard liquor, wine, and beer are the primary culprits behind allergic reactions.

Some of the common allergens you’ll find in alcoholic beverages include the following:

  • Artificial fruit flavoring
  • Sulfates
  • Traces of seafood proteins or eggs
  • Histamines
  • Hops, wheat, barley, and rye
  • Yeast and gluten

If even a trace amount exists in alcoholic beverages and it’s consumed by someone with a sensitivity, they will immediately develop symptoms. Alcohol allergies will produce severe stomach cramps, rashes, and nausea. These reactions caused by an allergy are typically more achy, painful, and itchy than that of intolerance.

Alcohol Flush Syndrome

One of the most common symptoms stemming from alcohol intolerance is alcohol flush syndrome. Immediately after a person consumes alcohol, the skin on their neck, face, and chest will feel warm and appear red. The flushing in the face is extremely common for someone who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol.

When an individual experiences a facial flush, it indicates that the body has an issue metabolizing and digesting alcohol. As was mentioned above, the deficiency of aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) is the primary culprit behind this sensitivity and intolerance. 

Alcohol Intolerance Prevention

Some medicines like antihistamine creams or oral medications can help control rashes or flushing of the face caused by allergies or alcohol intolerance. Although these work to prevent symptoms, you should keep in mind that all it does is mask the symptoms of a drinking problem, meaning you won’t address the root cause of the reaction. 

Since alcohol is genetically inherited, there is no known cure. Fortunately, there are some ways that can curb the harmful effects of both intolerance and allergy. A person can do this by:

  • Do not rely on antihistamines to alleviate your symptoms
  • Restrict or stop alcohol use altogether
  • Stop alcohol use when taking certain medications
  • Quit smoking cigarettes or avoid exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Seek medical attention to properly identify your symptoms 

Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Intolerance

Despite an alcohol tolerance, alcohol abuse can still occur. Even if a person is presenting the telltale signs of intolerance or allergies, they may continue drinking despite the negative reactions to experience alcohol’s pleasurable effects. 

Alcohol intolerance and heavy drinking can increase the odds of developing certain alcohol-related problems, including:

  • Cancer of the throat and mouth
  • High blood pressure
  • Hypertension
  • Higher rates of liver disease (cirrhosis)
  • Late-onset of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Gastric and esophageal cancer

If you know someone with an alcohol intolerance who continues to abuse alcohol despite the effects, it’s crucial they understand these high risks of health consequences. If you’re the one using alcohol, it’s time to limit your alcohol intake and work toward stopping. Although it might not be an easy process, your body fighting alcohol should be the first sign of how dangerous it is in your body. 

Alcohol Abuse Treatment

Alcohol withdrawal isn’t just uncomfortable; it can be extremely dangerous if not done under the care of professionals. Alcohol withdrawal could lead to seizure or delirium tremens (DTs), which can be fatal. If you’re ready to take control of your life and stop drinking, you must go to medical detox. If you’re concerned about drinking, it’s not worth risking your life to stop without getting the right help. 

By checking into detox, you will be given 24-hour care to ensure your safety. Clinicians will provide medication to alleviate symptoms, which is something you can’t do yourself. Depending on the severity of dependence or addiction, you could be moved into another level of care. This can help you understand the root causes of what caused you to drink, despite being alcohol intolerant. 

It’s time to get the help you need and understand what is fueling your addiction. Fortunately, it’s only a phone call away.

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