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Allergic reaction to alcohol

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Twice now, I've had a bad reaction to alcohol and I'm not sure what component caused it.

The first time, I drank just a few sips of champagne (don't remember the label) and about 10 minutes later, I felt my face get very hot, and I turned red as a beet. I mean, flaming red, all over my face. It took about 1/2 hour to cool down.

The second time, I drank a few sips of something called "Toxic Waste" (at a theme party). The drink was made up of Midori, vodka and Mountain Dew, that's all. Same thing happened--flaming heat on my face, beet red, cooling down after 1/2 hour.

Luckily, both times I was able to slip away without being noticed, as I would have been mortified to stand around looking like a lobster.

So does anyone have an idea what could have caused this kind of reaction? I've drunk more than one brand of champagne without any problem; ditto, vodka. Never had Midori though. Any thoughts are much appreciated!

  1. I don't know if it's technically an allergy or some other sort of hypersensitivity, but I do know someone who developed the same syndrome you seem to be experiencing. I don't know exactly how old she was when it happened, but she was well into adulthood and had been a regular (not heavy, just regular) drinker before that with no ill effects. Unfortunately, it seems to be permanent, at least in her case. I don't know if that's typical, but the bottom line is that it's not some sort of unheard-of bizarreness and probably has nothing to do with the Midori itself (although the stuff is so sickly sweet, it might cause a reflex gag reaction by itself.;) )

    2 Replies
    1. re: MikeG

      And actually, now that I think of it, I once knew yet another person who had the same problem, also developed well into adulthood (that poor guy had a lovingly amassed, fairly well-stocked wine cellar to dispose of after it came upon him.)

      1. re: MikeG

        Are either of the people you're speaking of Asian or have visited Asia? There's a possible link.

    2. i have the same problem and i've always chalked it up to the fact that i'm asian. genetically, asians don't process alcohol that well and often have allergic reactions even from just drinking a little bit. usually i'll have half a glass of wine and start to turn red (the asian glow!), but not be anywhere close to being drunk or buzzed. it's been getting worse as i've gotten older, so maybe you've always had a little bit of an alcohol allergy, but now the symptoms are showing up more as the years go by? just a theory...

      there are certain kinds of alcohol that make me more red like crappy wine (red or white), yeasty champagnes/sparkling wines (good or crappy), heineken (specifically, micro-brews (aka "hippy beer"), and cheap/well liquor. things that don't affect me as bad are top-shelf liquors and bud light (go figure).

      6 Replies
      1. re: rebs

        Half of Asians, but not only Asians, have a genetic variation of the enzyme (dehydrogenase) used to process alcohol that causes them to metabolize alcohol too quickly into acetaldehyde -- which causes the redness and flushing as it builds up in the body.

        But there's a step two that makes the acetaldehyde (and the redness and flushing) hang around longer. The variant enzyme also causes the too-slow metabolism of acetaldehyde into the benign acetic acid. So alcohol metabolism by folks with that variant enzyme is both too fast -- in its conversion of alcohol to acetaldehyde -- and too slow -- in its conversion of acetaldehyde into acetic acid.

        I've heard from a number of Asian wine-drinking friends that after they drank a very small amount of alcohol (a few sips of wine or beer) regularly, their bodies somehow learned to metabolize alcohol normally, with no redness or flushing. Of course, this is anecdotal info and not scientifically valid. But it's curious.

        An allergy to alcohol is very uncommon. The basic thing to remember is that an allergy is a reaction to a protein, and you don't find much of that in alcohol. Most likely, if there is an allergy, it's to a substance IN the beer or wine to which one may be allergic: wheat, corn, yeast, hops, barley, and the egg or seafood proteins that are used to "fine" [filter] and clarify wine.

        Sulfites are not the culprit. Lots of new research says sulfites are not the cause of any wine or beer reaction, unless you already suffer from asthma or have the rare sulfite oxidase deficiency. Lots more info on CH if you do a search.

        Histamines have been ruled out as well in recent medical studies. Tyramines, found in wine and other beverages containing alcohol, can cause a hypertensive reaction that includes headaches, hyperventilation and fast heartbeat. Especially if the tyramine-containing beverage is consumed with tyramine-laden foods, like cheese, mushrooms, salami, cured meats, and so on.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          You are spot on that the "flushed face and drunk quick" reaction after consuming very little alcohol is as a result of people having a variant in the gene that codes for the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme.

          1. re: StriperGuy

            I am of European desent, and drink regularly but very moderately. A drink or two most days. I get a blotchy red face, back, neck and arms from a few sips of alcohol, beer or vodka drinks usually, but only once or twice a year. Less than one percent of the times I have a drink and my immunity defenitly isn't improving with regular drinking. Certain types of alcohol seem to do it, but stress, food lack of rest seem to be part of it. There is more than just 'Asian flush' genetics and a pre determined allergy at play for some but not all people. I like the idea that a certain protein is to blame because of my very irregular symptoms and the severity of the symptoms after only a few sips. I have no other food allergies and usually stop drinking when it happens. I wish I knew what I, and obviously others, have.

            1. re: nichol0

              I get this reaction and its very random. I can go months without having it and drink normally fine. other times it happens every time i drink. and sometimes it can be one beer. other times its vodka or other liquor. its sooo random. and not only do i get red in the face and chest, my lungs get tight and its hard to breath. I wonder if its cause i have asthma, but my brother gets it too but he doesnt have asthma and he doesnt have the breathing reaction. i take my inhaler and i can breath better but i stay red... I want to know why this happens....

              1. re: nichol0

                I am also of mixed European descent (Irish/English/Scottish), drink regularly and moderately, and just noticed about a year ago (age 37) a sudden reaction at an office party to a glass of wine we had as part of a celebration. I turned suddenly red and had to leave for a time. Even my eyes were bloodshot. I assumed at first it was chemicals or something on my wineglass and chalked it up to nothing. In the interim, however, I have noticed a similar problem with other forms of alcohol (beer, rum, etc.). It only happens sometimes (seemingly randomly), though it seems strongest when I haven't eaten anything. I don't have any known food allergies. I really don't think it's the same thing as Asian flush because the symptoms are stronger/different. I similarly wish I knew what was causing it. Not the worst thing in the world but a bit of a social inconvenience.

                1. re: RobL92201

                  Hi Rob, this may be the start of skin condition known as Rosacia. It affects northern people of northern european decent. Alcohol, stress, spicy foods are all triggers for what starts out as redness of the t-zone and around the hairline. The condition will continue to worsen into your 40's with red scalely patches to eventually flake off and normalize over a period of 5 days. Avoiding alcohol will dramatically reduce flareups of the condition.

        2. this happened to me in college an the doctor told me that certain wines and shell fish combine to cause this reaction. several years later it occured again and the doctor told me it might be a reaction to sulfites in the wine.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jfood

            So interesting, this has happened to me as well! One night after some champagne and an appetizer with Caviar or roe of some sort I ended up spending a "wonderful" evening at Mt. Sinai. My alergist did numerous blood tests and we still have not figured out what it was I am allergic to. Then a couple years later, after white wine and swordfish, the same thing happened. I don't get uniformly red though, I do break out in hives and feel like I can't breath and my throat is closong!
            This only happens on occasion and my Dr. didn't mention the combo could cause this. Though I suspected as much.

          2. n
            Name withheld

            I've experienced this also. It started when I was in my early 30s, a few years ago. It comes and goes -- sometimes it will happen every time I drink, other times periodically, and sometimes never.

            Perhaps it is more likely to happen when I'm stressed, or drink particular types of alcohol, or in combination with something else. I don't know. I haven't noticed anything.

            I've talked to my dermatologist about it because I thought it was a reaction to a medication I was taking. He said it wasn't related. He may have said it was related to rosasea-I don't recall. In any case, he said it is harmless (other than the mild discomfort it causes). Naturally, don't take our advice -- if you are at all concerned, talk to a dermotologist.

            1. We have a good friend who can not drink red wine without getting "red" herself. No problem whatsoever with white wine or hard alcohol. I've been told it could be one's "histameans (phonetic spelling)" that cause this problem since there are some in red wines.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Monty

                many people are allergic to wines and get the flushing, with a range of other symptoms-- the more you drink the worse it will be also may react to some types of wines but not seriously to others. some folks can't drink fermented beverages-- beers, wines because of allergies, but they are fine with distilled liquors (hard liquor). the wine allergies can develop later in life due to genetics or lifestyle, age or other factors. i'd stop drinking wines and stick to 1 or 2 mixed drinks (meaning only one type of liquor used, with one mixer, and ice) and avoid brightly colored party wapatoowee that you have no idea what it contains. the flushing is one of the mildest symptoms of the allergy and it gets more unpleasant. . .

                1. re: soupkitten

                  i can drink wine, beer, and liquor without this reaction most the time. other times I get the reaction no matter what I drink. Its sooo random...