Alcohol and Smoke Can Worsen Asthma and Allergies

women drinking wine
Naturally occurring ingredients in beer and wine can trigger immune system reactions, according to allergy and asthma experts. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Drinking just one glass of wine can trigger allergic reactions in some people, and being exposed to smoke can worsen asthma and affect seasonal allergy sufferers, experts say.

"Although it's rare, allergies to alcohol can cause symptoms such as red, itchy eyes, nasal congestion, upset stomach and difficulty breathing," said allergist Dr. Sami Bahna, past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) and chief of allergy and immunology at Louisiana State University Medical School.

Allergic reactions to alcohol can be mild, such as temporarily developing a skin rash, or severe and even life-threatening, said Bahna, who presented his research at the ACAAI annual meeting in Boston on Sunday (Nov. 6). After drinking an alcoholic beverage, some people experience asthma attacks and anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction.

Naturally occurring ingredients in beer and wine — such as barley, ethanol, hops, malt, yeast, wheat, grapes and oats — can trigger immune system reactions. Other potential allergens can also be introduced into alcoholic drinks during processing, such as when egg whites are used as a filtering agent.

Sulfites, which occur naturally in wine but are sometimes also added as a preservative, can bring on allergies or worsen asthma symptoms. And some wines contain chemicals called tyramines, which often cause headaches shortly after being ingested, according to Bahna.

"Individuals can be allergic to the alcohol itself, or an added ingredient, but even when people are not allergic, they may not realize that alcohol can worsen existing allergy symptoms, particularly food allergies," Bahna said.

Consulting an allergist can help pinpoint which allergens cause negative reactions to certain alcoholic beverages. "In most cases, simply understanding what triggers the allergic reaction will help the person find an alternative drink to enjoy," Bahna said.

Tobacco smoke can aggravate the symptoms of seasonal allergies because smoke can enhance people's sensitivity to naturally occurring airborne substances, such as pollen and mold spores, which are especially prominent during the spring and fall allergy seasons.

"The health risks of tobacco smoke are widespread, whether your exposure is a result of active smoking, passive exposure through secondhand smoke, or indirect exposure from pregnant mother to her unborn child," Bahna said. "People with allergies and asthma should be especially careful to avoid any exposure to tobacco smoke."

Pass it on: Just one glass of wine can trigger allergic reactions in some people, and being exposed to smoke can worsen asthma and affect seasonal allergy sufferers.

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.