You or someone you know may believe themselves to have a beer allergy. This might be based on symptoms they experience after drinking, like redness or congestion. Two things to keep in mind if you think you have a beer allergy are that you’re probably wrong, and that what you’re experiencing is likely a sensitivity or intolerance. This isn’t to say that beer allergies don’t exist, but they are rare, and sometimes get confused with sensitivities and intolerances. Perhaps a bit of an explanation is in order.
What Causes a Beer Allergy?
A true allergic reaction occurs when the allergen in question produces the IgE antibody. With beer or wine, this can occur even if you only drink a small amount and will trigger symptoms like those that accompany other types of food allergies.
Since the IgE antibody appears in response to certain proteins, and because beer is mostly water, the actual allergen is going to be one of the other ingredients. This can include:
- malted barley, wheat, sorghum, or other grains
- fruit extracts
- certain colorings, flavorings, or preservatives
Since different beers are made with different ingredients, it is possible to be allergic to one type of beer but not another. If you are allergic to a type of grain or gluten, then you will also have problems eating other types of foods. When your doctor is taking your history, any allergy-like symptoms from other foods will help narrow down the potential culprit.
Symptoms of a Beer Allergy
A beer allergy is a type of food allergy, so the effects are similar. Symptoms such as hives, wheezing, or chest pain can occur almost immediately, while others like nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and flushing can take a few hours to appear. As with other food allergies, it is possible to have a reaction severe enough to trigger anaphylaxis, which is an extreme allergic reaction.
Incidentally, alcohol is known to make any existing food sensitivities more pronounced and to increase the severity of food allergy reactions. This is because alcohol also increases gut permeability and allows more food to pass into the body, which aggravates any responses that might be triggered from what you’re eating.
Differences between a Sensitivity/Intolerance and an Allergy
Food sensitivities and intolerances refer to the same phenomenon: unpleasant symptoms resulting from eating a specific food or ingredient. The symptoms of intolerance have a large amount of overlap with those from a food allergy, so it is understandable that they get confused. How can you tell the difference?
- Food allergies are an immune reaction. No IgE antibody, no allergy
- Sensitivity usually means that some part of the food cannot be digested properly (lactose intolerance or Celiac are some examples) or that it aggravates an underlying condition like irritable bowel syndrome—there is no immune involvement
- Food sensitivities cannot cause anaphylaxis or hives
- It is possible to avoid triggering a food sensitivity by eating only a small amount
- It is sometimes possible to prevent a sensitivity reaction by taking medication before consuming the food in question. Allergies do not have this luxury
Treatment for Beer Allergies
First, it’s important to talk to your doctor and get tested to be sure it’s a true allergy. If it is, then it’s also important to try and narrow down which part of the beer you are allergic to. A skin prick test is one of the ways this can be established. Once this is done, the following options are advisable:
- Avoidance is always the best way to avoid food allergies. Depending on which ingredient you are allergic to, you might still be able to drink beer if you watch your labels
- Over-the-counter antihistamines can be used to treat mild cases of rashes, hives, or itching
- If there is a risk or history of suffering a severe reaction, carrying an EpiPen (or, given the current controversy, a Twinject) may be recommended by your doctor
- Wearing a medical alert bracelet (or necklace) can help alert bystanders if you suffer a reaction severe enough to incapacitate you