Alcohol Makes You Sneeze—Or Worse

By Dirk Hanson 11/08/11

Up to 50 million Americans suffer from asthma and allergies, and booze is partly to blame.

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A booze-induced sneeze? Thinkstock

The Big Book's conception of allergy to alcohol is scientifically controversial. But whether you're an alcoholic or not, says prominent allergy expert Dr. Sami Bahna, the physical symptoms of medical allergies to booze, such as asthma and sneezing, are very much for real. Dr. Bahna, a past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, notes that some people are physically allergic to ethanol itself, just as others react violently to peanuts. But for most, it's the other ingredients of beverages that trigger the allergy: barley, hops, grapes, wheat, yeast, sulfites, histamines, tyramines or even egg whites. Dr. Bahna worries that people “may not realize that alcohol can worsen existing allergy symptoms, particularly food allergies.” So someone who's allergic to both the barley in beer, and also to cheese, for example, can have serious problems if they combine the two. Booze-related allergic reactions also include itchy eyes, congestion, and even anaphylaxis—that's a whole-body, often fatal allergic reaction marked by constricted airways. As many as 50 million Americans suffer from allergies and asthma, a rate that's risen sharply in the past two decades.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]