It’s not uncommon to feel thirsty after you drink a glass of vino or to get a headache. But as it turns out, due to specific ingredients in wine, some people can develop an intolerance to the popular alcoholic beverage, which in turn may lead to some pretty uncomfortable and even dangerous side effects. In fact, for some people with a history of asthma (and even for some who don’t have asthma), drinking even a glass or two of wine can have the power to trigger a serious asthma attack.
How does one develop an intolerance to wine, you ask? As it turns out, a wine allergy isn’t all that different from other food allergies some people have to foods such as nuts and fish. (Related: People Who Should Never Drink Wine, According to an Expert.)
The most common causes of a wine allergy are sulfites, glycoproteins, and a simple grape allergy. For asthmatics, histamines—which are produced from bacteria and yeast when alcohol ferments and are especially prevalent in red wine—can also spell trouble.
Sulfites occur naturally in wine as the yeast metabolizes in the fermentation process. They can also be added to wine as a preservative, often to keep it fresh and prevent it from morphing into an expensive bottle of vinegar.
White wine typically contains more sulfites than red wine, as they are needed to protect the wine’s delicate flavor and color, and sweet wines, which boast a higher sugar content, contain more sulfites in an effort to prevent the remaining sugar from starting a secondary fermentation.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that every one out of 100 individuals has a sensitivity to sulfites, and five to 10% of those with asthma have severe sulfite sensitivity.
What’s more? A study conducted by researchers at the Nagasaki University School of Medicine in Japan found that alcohol-induced asthma is more prevalent in Asian populations and can even occur in people who don’t have a history of previous asthma attacks. Asians are also more likely to develop flushed skin after drinking alcohol, which scientists have attributed to a high frequency of a genetically determined decreased activity of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) that metabolizes acetaldehyde, the metabolite of alcohol.
Still, it’s important to remember that not everyone with asthma experiences the onset or worsening of an attack when drinking wine. In one study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, only about 33% of participants said alcohol was associated with an asthmatic event at least two times.
Yet even for those who don’t have a more serious reaction to sulfites, such as an asthma attack, the chemicals can still be a nuisance and make drinking even the occasional glass of wine. A more common allergic reaction to sulfites typically involves sneezing, headaches, and hives.
If you have a serious case of asthma or suspect you might be otherwise allergic to sulfites, look for the words “sulfite-free” on your wine labels. And for more on the topic, check out What Happens to Your Body When You Drink a Bottle of Wine.
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