Beer basics

Although the main ingredient in beer is water, there are many other ingredients. This generally includes malt barley and brewer’s yeast, along with hops or assorted flavorings.

True beer allergies are rare. The many ingredients in beer make an allergy to one of the specific ingredients more likely. You may also have a food sensitivity rather than an allergy. Alcohol intolerance is another possibility.

Read on to learn what could be causing symptoms after drinking beer, and what you can do about it.

What are the symptoms of a beer allergy?

If you’re allergic to beer, you’ll probably have symptoms much like those of other allergic reactions. This includes:

  • flushing
  • hives
  • sneezing
  • wheezing
  • hoarseness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal pain and bloating
  • tightness of the chest

An allergic reaction to food usually happens within a couple of hours. A food allergy is your immune system’s response to a food protein that the body sees as harmful. Allergic reactions that involve hives, wheezing, and chest pain can occur almost immediately. They should be considered severe and potentially life-threatening. If you experience these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention.

If your symptoms are very mild, you may have a food sensitivity rather than a true allergy. This is also known as a food intolerance. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s not an immune system response and isn’t as serious.

Why am I allergic to beer?

Although the main ingredient in beer is water, there are many other ingredients that may prompt your symptoms. If you have an allergic reaction, it’s very likely that you’re allergic to a specific ingredient in beer. Depending on the brand, the ingredients may include:

  • malted barley or other grains, such as wheat and sorghum
  • hops
  • yeast
  • assorted colorings, flavorings, and preservatives

In the United States, about 2 to 3 percent of adults have some type of food allergy. About 5 percent of children have a food allergy, but many outgrow those allergies by adulthood.

A small 2014 study of Chinese people with a beer allergy found that sensitivity to sorghum or sorghum malt was the most common cause.

Nearly 1.2 percent of adults in the United States are allergic to wheat. It’s one of the top eight food allergens. Often, people who are allergic to wheat are also allergic to barley, though that’s not always the case. Barley is typically considered safe for those with wheat allergies.

If you’re allergic to a specific grain, beer won’t be your only problem. You’ll also experience symptoms when you eat other food products containing that allergen.

What does it mean to be alcohol intolerant?

If you feel ill after drinking alcohol but don’t experience symptoms at any other time, it’s possible that you have an alcohol intolerance.

Alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition, not an allergy to the ingredients in beer. It means that your body can’t effectively break down alcohol.

When you drink alcohol, symptoms can come on quickly. They can include:

  • stuffy or runny nose
  • skin flushing
  • hives
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • low blood pressure
  • worsening of asthma symptoms

The only solution for alcohol intolerance is to completely avoid alcohol.

If you have symptoms after drinking beer, but not after drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages, it’s not alcohol intolerance. More likely, you’re allergic to or sensitive to a particular ingredient in that beer.

Risk factors to consider

You’re more likely to have allergies if you have a family history of allergies. A personal or family history of asthma also increases your chances of developing an allergy.

A true food allergy is a serious health issue. It means you have to take great care in reading labels and choosing foods and drinks.

In the most severe cases, a food or drink allergy can lead to anaphylaxis. Symptoms can include hives, wheezing, and chest pain. If you have any of these symptoms, you should seek emergency medical care. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition.

When to see a doctor

If you have symptoms of an allergy after drinking beer, you should see your doctor. They can help determine if you’re allergic to a specific ingredient in the beer. This will help you avoid that ingredient in other products.

Allergy testing of the skin and blood should be able to determine your allergies, or at least rule some out.

Your symptoms can also be due to an interaction between beer or alcohol and any medication you’re taking. Be sure to tell your doctor if you’re taking any medications or supplements.

If you’ve ever experienced swelling of the tongue or throat or trouble breathing after drinking beer, you should stop drinking beer until you’ve seen a doctor.

What you can do now

If you experience uncomfortable symptoms after drinking beer, there are a few things you can do:

  • If your symptoms are mild, try switching to another brand to see if you can drink it without any issues.
  • An over-the-counter antihistamine may also help with mild symptoms. Your doctor can prescribe a more powerful antihistamine if your symptoms are severe.
  • Get tested for allergies. You can start the process with your family doctor or you can see an allergist. Ask to be tested for ingredients commonly found in beer, such as wheat, barley, and sorghum. Be sure to note whether you have the same symptoms after eating or drinking other food products.

If you find out that you’re allergic to one ingredient, you might still be able to enjoy beer. With a little research and careful label reading, you may be able to find beer that doesn’t contain that particular allergen. You’ll also want to avoid all other products made with that ingredient.

If you’ve ever experienced anaphylaxis after drinking beer, it’s important that you determine which ingredient caused it so you can avoid it all together. Ask your doctor if you should carry a prescription epinephrine pen. These auto-injectors can save your life. In severe cases, you may have to give up beer entirely.

Keep reading: Symptoms of celiac disease, wheat allergy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Which is it? »