Sudden Alcohol Intolerance: Signs, Symptoms and Alcohol Allergy

Downing alcoholic drinks with friends is a common pastime for many, but if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable as you unwind during happy hour, then you may be experiencing alcohol intolerance. Unfortunately, many people often confuse this with alcohol allergy, but knowing the difference is key in finding the right treatment for you. 

What is Alcohol Intolerance?

An alcohol intolerance (alcohol sensitivity) causes quick, intense onslaught symptoms after the consumption of only one or two drinks. With that in mind, this type of intolerance is clinically diagnosed as a side effect of a specific drug. This means that the body’s immune system creates antibodies against the drug, which then creates a negative reaction within the body.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Intolerance?

  • Headaches – After drinking a few drinks, a person with alcohol intolerance may experience a headache. One of the most common symptoms of alcohol intolerance, one that can often be very unpleasant and painful.
  • Dizziness – Dizziness is one of the most commonly associated signs of intolerance. You may experience an overall sense of unsteadiness as well as lightheadedness, which may even seem like you are going to pass out.
  • Difficulty Focusing – Wobbling vision and blurry eyes are both common symptoms that a person may experience with this intolerance. Because of this lack of clarity, it can often be difficult to focus or perform tasks that require fine motor skills.
  • Flushing – Alcohol intolerance can cause redness or flushing in the face. This is a major sign of an intolerance and may occur very quickly.
  • Migraine – Migraines can be a very painful symptom for someone with alcohol intolerance. However, migraines can also be triggered by other common symptoms of intolerance such as dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Joint Aching –  If you experience pain or discomfort in any part of your body, you may be experiencing an intolerance to alcohol. This pain can be anywhere from minor to severe, and can even begin to radiate throughout the body.
  • Nausea and Vomiting – One of the most common reactions to alcohol is nausea, which is usually accompanied by vomiting. If you begin to feel like you’re going to vomit, then it is recommended that you immediately stop drinking and try to rest.

How Does Alcohol Intolerance Develop?

Intolerance to alcohol happens if the person drinking lacks the appropriate amount of enzymes to break down the toxins found in alcohol, leading to a buildup of acetaldehyde. The liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol, but if the liver isn’t strong enough to do this, then you may experience uncomfortable symptoms.

Is Alcohol Intolerance the Same as Alcohol Allergy?

A lot of people confuse alcohol intolerance with alcohol allergy, which is why it is important to understand the difference between the two. An alcohol allergy occurs when your immune system creates antibodies to a specific component of the alcohol. 

As a result, your body will overreact to the substance and cause a variety of different symptoms. Keep in mind that alcohol allergy can be life-threatening, so it’s crucial to get treatment right away in order to avoid any serious complications.

What is Alcohol Allergy?

In contrast to an intolerance to alcohol, alcohol allergy causes a delayed sensitivity reaction, which is why it is sometimes confused as the same. It is also why most people do not realize they are suffering from alcohol allergies until they experience a severe reaction after having several drinks.

alcohol intolerance symptoms
Alcohol Intolerance

Alcohol allergy is a serious condition, and in most cases, people with a true allergy can only drink small amounts of alcohol before suffering severe consequences. Here are the symptoms that you should watch out for: 

  • Itchy mouth, eyes, or nose;
  • Hives, eczema, or itchiness on your skin;
  • Swelling of your face, throat, or other body parts;
  • Nasal congestion, wheezing, or difficulty breathing;
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea;
  • Dizziness, light-headedness, or loss of consciousness;

These are all signs of a serious and life-threatening alcohol allergy. This means that you should immediately seek emergency medical attention as soon as you notice them. 

Who is at Risk of Developing Alcohol Intolerance?

Anyone can develop alcohol intolerance. However, there are certain factors that may increase your chances of suffering from symptoms associated with this intolerance.

  • Asian Traits – If you are of Asian descent, then you may have a higher chance of developing an intolerance. This can be attributed to a genetic variation that slows the breakdown of alcohol, leading to unpleasant side effects.
  • Asthma / Hay Fever – If you suffer from asthma, hay fever, or any other respiratory condition, then you may be at a higher risk of experiencing an intolerance. 

When the symptoms of these conditions are aggravated, the absorption of alcohol into the body can be slowed, leading to a buildup of acetaldehyde and the symptoms of alcohol intolerance.

  • Allergy to Grains – If you are allergic to grains, then you may experience an alcohol intolerance. This is due to the fact that grains such as wheat, barley, and rye contain gluten, which is an enzyme inhibitor. This can make it difficult for your body to break down alcohol, leading to a buildup of acetaldehyde.
  • Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – If you have been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, then you may be at a higher risk of developing an intolerance. It is also believed that this intolerance can continue even after Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has gone into remission.

Is There a Way to Prevent Alcohol Intolerance from Happening?

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent intolerance from happening. However, there are many precautions you can take to help you avoid unpleasant symptoms as you drink.

  • Drink in Moderation – If you want to enjoy a drink every once in a while without worrying about alcohol intolerance, then you should stick to drinking in moderation. This means only drinking one or two drinks per occasion and avoiding dramatic changes in the percentage of alcohol.
  • Eat Food – An intolerance to alcohol can lead to an upset stomach, which means that you should always eat before drinking. This is especially true if you are going to be drinking for several hours or at a party, where you may be tempted to drink on an empty stomach.
  • Take Antacids – If you experience heartburn or other symptoms of an upset stomach, then it may be due to intolerance. You may want to consider taking antacids to help relieve any discomfort.

Can You Still Drink with Alcohol Intolerance?

Ultimately, you can still drink with an intolerance as long as you are aware of the risks and take proper precautions. If you are concerned that your alcohol intolerance is causing you to feel uncomfortable, then it is recommended that you speak with your primary health care provider to get a proper diagnosis. 

If you do have an intolerance, then you can begin to manage your symptoms and feel more comfortable when you drink.


This type of intolerance can be hard to live with because it can affect how you interact with others. However, there are many ways to manage symptoms and feel more comfortable as you drink.

If you think you may have an intolerance to alcohol, then you should speak with your primary health care provider to receive a diagnosis. If you are able to get a proper diagnosis, then you can begin to make small changes to your lifestyle and manage your symptoms.