Experts share latest buzz on allergies to alcohol and tobacco

While the health benefits of drinking wine in moderation continue to make news, for some with allergies even a glass a day may be difficult to swallow. At the annual scientific meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) in Boston, Nov. 3-8, allergists share the latest buzz on allergies to alcohol and tobacco.

"Although it's rare, allergies to alcohol can cause symptoms such as red, itchy eyes, nasal congestion, upset stomach and difficulty breathing," said allergist Sami Bahna, MD, ACAAI past president, and chief of Allergy and Immunology at Louisiana State University Medical School in Shreveport. "In most cases, simply understanding what triggers the allergic reaction will help the person find an alternative drink to enjoy."

Reactions can be triggered by naturally occurring ingredients in beer and wine, including barley, ethanol, grapes, histamine, hops, malt, oats, tryptamine, tyramine, wheat, and yeast. Other potential allergens may be introduced to beer and wine during processing, including egg whites, which are sometimes used as a filtering agent, and sulfites, which occur naturally in wine but also may be added as a preservative.

Allergic reactions to alcohol can produce minor symptoms such as rash, or life-threatening reactions including asthma attacks and anaphylaxis. In his presentation, Dr. Bahna discusses case studies of patients who experience symptoms of asthma and anaphylaxis after drinking wine or beer. He points out that wine, particularly red wine, contains chemicals called tyramines that commonly cause headache.

"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," Dr. Bahna added.

Similar to diagnosing a food allergy, Dr. Bahna explains, once an allergist helps someone pinpoint which allergens are causing a reaction, simply avoiding the beverage is the best solution.

Dr. Bahna also shared research related to tobacco smoke and its effect on allergic disease. While it may seem like common sense that tobacco smoke as a strong irritant worsens asthma, it can also affect seasonal allergy sufferers. Studies show that exposure to smoke can enhance sensitivity to airborne substances like pollen and mold spores, which wreak havoc during spring and fall allergy seasons each year.

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

Studies show that tobacco smoke:

•enhances sensitivity to airborne substances like pollen or spores
•increases bronchial sensitivity to specific irritants
•paves the way to the development of asthma
•worsens asthma
•increases the risk of developing COPD
•increases the risk of emphysema and lung cancer.

Source: American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

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