If you drink to excess, you can expect a hangover the next day. Wooziness, headaches and dehydration are all the hallmarks of a nasty hangover. Hangovers result from the alcohol in your drinks. It works as a diuretic and dehydrates you, resulting in a miserable day-after experience. What if you experience great discomfort when you haven’t been drinking to excess? If you experience side effects with just the first few sips, you may have alcohol intolerance.
What Is an Alcohol Intolerance?
Alcohol intolerance is an adverse reaction when alcohol is introduced to the body. It’s a result of the body lacking the enzyme produced by the liver called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) that breaks down alcohol in the body. If alcohol isn’t broken down properly the body becomes flooded by a toxic alcohol by-product call acetaldehyde, triggering a reaction.
This toxin continues to build up in the body as you drink and results in uncomfortable and sometimes painful symptoms. Alcohol intolerance is most often caused by a genetic condition, meaning you were born with it. This means that it is not curable.
There are certain risk factors that increase the likelihood of an intolerance:
Difference between Alcohol Intolerance and Allergy
One of the most common mistakes is to confuse an allergy with an intolerance. It is more common to have an alcohol intolerance than it is to have an alcohol allergy. Allergic reactions tend to be more severe. When alcohol passes your lips, take a closer look at the symptoms you experience.
Symptoms of Alcohol Intolerance
Symptoms of an Alcohol Allergy
Allergies can become even more complicated. You need to note what kind of alcohol you’re drinking if you experience an allergic reaction. Beer contains ingredients like yeast, hops, and barley that can trigger allergies to wheat and gluten. Red wine is chock full of histamines and white wine has sulfites—both huge triggers of allergies in some people.
Track your symptoms so you can accurately discuss them with your doctor. Allergies can be life threatening and need to be addressed right away. Severe symptoms can be a sign of anaphylactic shock: a severe, systemic reaction that can be life-threatening. It’s important to call 911 or visit an emergency room immediately. Anaphylaxis can be fatal in less than 10 minutes.
6 Signs You Have an Alcohol Intolerance
If you and alcohol don’t seem to mix, it’s important to note what happens when you consume it. Symptoms appear approximately 20-30 minutes after first ingestion. Signs you may be alcohol intolerant are discussed below.
A Runny Nose
This is the hallmark symptom of an intolerance. It’s almost immediate and nagging. If you find you’re reaching for the tissues when you take a sip, write it down to discuss with your physician. Some people will experience this when consuming food made with alcohol when all the ethanol is not evaporated away.
Drinks like wine and champagne contain histamines, and if those aren’t broken down properly it collects, causing symptoms that feel like a seasonal allergic reaction. Your eyes may itch and water, too.
This is also referred to as the alcohol flush. If your cheeks get flushed when wine passes your lips, you’re experiencing a common side effect of alcohol intolerance. It’s thought to be caused by a rise in blood pressure as your body fails to break down the ethanol. You may even experience flushing and red patches over your entire body. Your face or body may also feel warm or hot as the flushing begins.
This side effect lasts just after drinking for some people, but in others, it can last days past your last drink. Because each reaction is individualized, there’s no way to tell how long this symptom will last.
Red, itchy bumps or rash over parts of your body can be a sign of alcohol intolerance. It’s important to note this is also a symptom of an allergy. These are located chaotically and sporadically with intolerance. Keep a keen eye on the hives and how the rest of your body feels. If hives are accompanied by any of the other symptoms of an allergy, you may be experiencing something more serious than an intolerance.
These can range from mild to debilitating migraines. It’s important to distinguish this from the headaches that are a cornerstone of hangovers. If you know you didn’t overindulge, or a headache creeps in 30 minutes after your first sip, you may be experiencing a symptom of alcohol intolerance. These headaches are caused by the release of histamines.
These headaches can be incessant and quite uncomfortable every time you drink. This is a common hallmark of alcohol intolerance.
Rapid Heart Rate
Heart rate refers to the number of heartbeats per minute (BPM). A normal BPM for adults is between 60 and 100, according to the Mayo Clinic. Alcohol consumption always affects the heart. The first drink or two is thought to increase your heart rate because alcohol acts as a vasodilator which causes the blood vessels to dilate and blood flow to increase.
The more you drink in one sitting, your heart rate will begin to slow. Alcohol is considered a depressant, but at first acts as a stimulant. If you notice an increased heart rate right away, you could be experiencing an intolerance. This is a scary side effect but harmless if it’s alcohol intolerance. This is one of the ways your body says it dislikes the alcohol you’re drinking.
If you also experience shortness of breath, chest pain or dizziness, this could be a sign of a severe allergic reaction and you may need medical attention
Other hallmarks of intolerance are digestion issues. These side effects can be mild or severe.
Alcohol can increase the absorption rate in your gut. If you have an intolerance, this will also speed up the absorption of gluten, wheat and other allergens making existing food allergies worse. This can cause cramping in the stomach, bloating and nausea. The more alcohol you drink, the worse this symptom can get.
While not as common as nausea, this is definitely one of the most unpleasant symptoms of an intolerance. This can come on suddenly, causing you to hustle to the nearest bathroom—not something anyone wants to do, especially in a social setting. This is a sign that your body isn’t breaking down the alcohol the way it should.
You can experiment with the kinds of alcohol you’re drinking. Beer has gluten and wheat, so it may trigger this ugly symptom more than other alcoholic drinks. It’s worth playing with what you drink to avoid this uncomfortable and embarrassing side effect.
When you experience these symptoms, you might want to see your doctor to rule out an alcohol allergy. When you’re preparing for your doctor appointment make a list to discuss:
If your doc tells you it’s alcohol intolerance, there’s really only one way to treat it: avoid alcohol.
That will be a tough pill to swallow for most people. Drinking alcohol in America is one of the most socially acceptable activities we have. We get drinks on the first date, beer at the big game, work function drinks and even free champagne at salons and spas. So, what can you do to lessen the effects? Maybe nothing but you might want to try:
Some people can walk away from alcohol and never look back because the symptoms just don’t make drinking worth it for them. If you find you cannot stop drinking even though you want to, you may have alcohol dependency.
There are great resources out there for anyone that wants help. Alcoholics Anonymous is a great first resource that costs nothing, is available everywhere and can point you toward other resources to help you quit.
Alcohol can be a fun way to enhance experiences. Most people can choose not to let alcohol affect them negatively by not drinking enough to induce a hangover the next day. If you’re one of the people who feel bad immediately after your first drink, you could have an intolerance. Luckily the symptoms aren’t serious and, once checked out by your doctor, it may be something you can grin and bear. Cheers!