Could You Be Allergic To Alcohol?

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
What's your hangover type? Do you get a little headache the next day? Are you more of a barf-on-the-sidewalk-the-morning-after person? Or do you get a stuffy nose, red skin, and diarrhea while you're still at the bar? If that last one sounds like you, that could be a sign of something more serious than just a hangover, like an alcohol allergy or intolerance.
Everyone is different when it comes to how much they can drink before feeling sick, but people with alcohol intolerance get ferocious symptoms immediately after drinking alcohol, no matter how much they drink, and they feel more acute than a classic hangover. Alcohol intolerance isn't an allergy per se (those are pretty uncommon), but "intolerance" refers to uncomfortable feelings right after drinking alcohol, according to the Mayo Clinic. A 2006 study suggests that alcohol intolerance could be caused by a genetic disorder that makes it harder for your body to break down alcohol in a drink.
Exactly how many people have alcohol intolerance can be tricky to pinpoint, because some of the symptoms can be confused for a hangover. In a 2007 study of 6,000 people, about 14% of participants reported having some reaction to alcohol and said that they felt it in their respiratory tract or on their skin. Alcohol intolerance is usually genetic, and is more common in people of East Asian descent, according to a 2009 study. The only real way to treat alcohol intolerance is to stop drinking alcohol; and if you are allergic to something in alcohol, you might be able to take an antihistamine drug before drinking, or find a drink that doesn't include the thing that causes a reaction (but, of course, talk to your doctor first).
It's possible that people experience painful symptoms after drinking because specific ingredients in alcohol — like grains or sulfites — cause an allergic reaction, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you're concerned about how drinking alcohol makes your body feel, you should keep track of your symptoms and talk to your doctor. They'll probably do a skin prick test to determine if you're allergic to anything in alcoholic drinks, or they might take a blood test to measure your immune system response, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Here are some symptoms that could be a sign of alcohol intolerance or an alcohol allergy.
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Feeling sick right after drinking.

Unlike a hangover, which usually hits the morning after drinking way too much, someone with alcohol intolerance will feel ill pretty much instantly after drinking alcohol, according to the Mayo Clinic. And it doesn't matter how much you drank; you'll still feel the effects.
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Getting really red in the face.

Many people get flushed or red in the face after drinking alcohol, and it's usually a sign that your body isn't able to break down a compound in alcohol, Jong-Sung Kim, MD, PhD, told Prevention. When you drink alcohol, your blood vessels expand and your blood pressure drops (which is why some people get headaches from drinking). People with alcohol intolerance aren't able to break down the compound that causes these blood pressure differences, so instead their face gets very flushed, Dr. Kim told Prevention. Taking an antihistamine or histamine-blocker like Pepcid can help reduce the amount of redness someone experiences, but you should definitely talk to your doctor before you mix alcohol and medication.
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Having diarrhea.

Looser or more frequent bowel movements after drinking is pretty common for someone with alcohol intolerance. A 2012 study found that around 28% of people with alcohol intolerance reported getting diarrhea.
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Developing itchy, red bumps on your skin.

If you get hives from drinking, that's usually a clear-cut a sign that you're having an allergic reaction to the actual alcohol, Dennis K. Ledford, MD, told the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.
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Having a runny or stuffy nose.

There's a link between seasonal allergies and alcohol, and a 2008 study found that women with allergies had a 3% increase in allergy symptoms for every drink they had per week. This probably has to do with the histamines released in alcohol during the fermentation process, which can set off a person's allergy symptoms, like a stuffy or runny nose.
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Barfing or feeling nauseous.

When you drink alcohol, your stomach produces more acid, which can irritate your stomach, according to the Mayo Clinic. Someone with an alcohol allergy or intolerance might feel these stomach symptoms more acutely and after fewer drinks than other people, William Blahd, MD, told WebMD.