Alcohol Intolerance: Symptoms And Causes

Alcohol intolerance refers to an abnormal reaction of your body’s systems to alcohol. It can be a genetic condition or occur due to the ingredients found in alcoholic products. The most common symptoms include a stuffy nose, hives, and itchy skin.

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Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS


Alcohol intolerance is a disorder that impairs your body’s ability to break down alcohol properly.

Symptoms may occur due to less aldehyde dehydrogenase, or ALDH2, in the body.

Aldehyde dehydrogenase is an enzyme found in the liver. It breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, acetic acid, carbon dioxide, and water.

Some people experience flushing syndrome, which causes symptoms like facial redness. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fast heartbeat, runny nose, and headaches.

People with severe alcohol intolerance are at risk for liver damage or other life-threatening conditions. Alcohol intolerance can be congenital (born with it) or develop later in life.

Is Alcohol Intolerance The Same As An Alcohol Allergy?

No, alcohol intolerance and alcohol allergies are not identical. The main distinction is the type of reaction each produces.

Immune system responses cause alcohol allergies, whereas digestive system reactions cause alcohol intolerance.

On the other hand, alcohol intolerance is usually caused by an allergic reaction to one of alcohol’s ingredients, rather than by the ethanol itself.

However, severe alcohol reactions are misdiagnosed as allergies in some cases when the cause is Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – lymph nodes cancer.

Causes Of Alcohol Intolerance

Alcohol intolerance is caused by inherited (a genetic condition) characteristics typically in people of Asian descent, specifically East Asians.

It may also occur due to the ingredients found in alcoholic beverages, particularly beer and wine.


Some people are sensitive to sulfites found in wine and beer.

If you’re intolerant to sulfites, drinking alcohol can cause various symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and headaches.

Sulfite intolerance may trigger asthma attacks after alcohol consumption. People who have both asthma and sulfite intolerance should avoid alcoholic drinks altogether.


Most people who are alcohol-intolerant are sensitive to the chemical preservatives added to beer and wine. For example, some beers contain isinglass, a substance made from fish bladders.

People who have an allergy or sensitivity to fish proteins may experience metabolic disorders or other reactions after drinking beer containing isinglass.

Certain wines contain tartrazine, which can cause allergic reactions in some people.


Some people are sensitive to histamine, a chemical found in red wine. Red wine contains more histamine than white wine or beer.

Histamine intolerance may cause headaches, flushing, or itchy skin. If you have an allergy to shrimp or scallops, you may be more likely to experience symptoms from drinking red wine.

Symptoms Of Alcohol Intolerance

Alcohol intolerance, or a reaction to an alcoholic beverage’s ingredients, can manifest as the following signs and symptoms:

Facial Redness

Alcohol intolerance can cause facial flushing, a burning sensation that spreads across your face and neck.

That occurs when alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) reacts to alcohol by producing a chemical called acetaldehyde.

The chemical causes dilation of blood vessels, leading to increased blood flow through your skin and flushing.

Red Blotchy Skin

Alcohol intolerance can also cause red, blotchy skin, characterized by a rash-like appearance.

That occurs when histamine levels in your body rise due to an allergic reaction to alcohol.

Histamine is responsible for causing inflammation and itchiness, which results in skin flushing and redness.

Nausea And Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting after consuming an alcoholic beverage occur when acetaldehyde blocks your liver’s ability to produce substances that break down alcohol.

As a result, acetaldehyde levels build up in your bloodstream, leading to nausea and sickness.

The severity of your symptoms will depend on how quickly you metabolize alcohol and if you have other health conditions that exacerbate reactions to alcohol or acetaldehyde.

Low Blood Pressure

Alcohol intolerance can cause low blood pressure, characterized by a sudden drop in your heart rate and blood pressure.

That occurs when acetaldehyde builds up in your bloodstream, leading to symptoms such as dizziness and fainting.

If you experience these symptoms after consuming alcohol, it’s essential to seek medical attention immediately.

Risk Factors For Developing Alcohol intolerance

The following are risk factors for alcohol intolerance or other adverse reactions to alcoholic beverages:


Older people are more likely to develop alcohol intolerance than younger people. The main reason age affects alcohol intolerance is because the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol is slowed.

Alcohol intolerance is most common in adults over 40 years of age. It’s uncommon in children and teens.

Gallbladder Removal

A condition called alcohol-induced liver disease can develop in people who have had their gallbladders removed.

Bile from your gallbladder helps break down alcohol before it enters your bloodstream. Therefore, removing a gallbladder effects alcohol processing greatly.


People with asthma are more likely to develop alcohol intolerance than people without asthma.

Some medications can increase your risk of developing alcohol intolerance, including NSAIDs such as ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin, and naproxen sodium (Aleve).

If you have liver damage from hepatitis or other causes, you may risk developing alcohol intolerance.

Treatments For Alcohol Intolerance And Alcohol Abuse

Currently, there is no cure for alcohol intolerance. The most effective treatment is to abstain from alcohol and alcohol-containing foods entirely.

Suppose you’ve had an alcoholic beverage and are experiencing mild intolerance symptoms, such as a stuffy nose, a reddened face, or hives. In that case, your doctor may conduct a physical exam and prescribe an antihistamine.

It’s critical to remember that antihistamines only alleviate a few symptoms, and if you have alcohol intolerance, you should stop drinking.

If you need help quitting drinking, consider enrolling in a rehab facility, where you can find intensive treatment to help you stop alcohol abuse and enter recovery.

Find Addiction Treatment Services At Bedrock Recovery Center

At Bedrock Recovery Center, you or your loved one will get highly effective treatment for alcoholism, drug addiction, and related side effects.

Our highly trained counselors and healthcare professionals provide first-class addiction treatment and mental health care customized to meet your unique needs.

You can benefit from our local access to a wide range of community support groups and activities as you work toward a healthy future.

Call us today to learn more about our comprehensive alcohol and drug treatment programs.

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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