If you have a pattern of suddenly feeling very sick after consuming alcohol, you may have developed sudden onset alcohol intolerance. Your body may also start to reject alcohol later in life because as you age and your body changes, the way you respond to alcohol can also change.

Article at a Glance:

  • Having an alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition that means your body cannot process alcohol easily.
  • Symptoms of an alcohol intolerance most often develop rapidly, immediately following having a drink, and can result in mild to severe side effects.
  • Alcohol intolerance is often confused with other health conditions that produce similar side effects like having an alcohol allergy.
  • You are at higher risk for alcohol intolerance if you are of East Asian descent. As a genetic condition, therefore, it is likely that your family members are at risk.
  • There is no treatment for alcohol intolerance at this time, other than avoiding alcohol.

What is Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance is a real condition, but it can sometimes be confused with other related conditions such as allergies or drug interactions with alcohol. Having an alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition that means your body cannot process alcohol easily.

Alcohol Intolerance Symptoms

Symptoms of alcohol intolerance most often develop rapidly. Sometimes they can occur immediately following drinking alcohol. Symptoms can be mild or severe and may include:

For mild intolerances, you should either avoid alcohol, limit how much you drink or avoid certain types of alcohol with ingredients that may cause a reaction. However, if you have a serious reaction following drinking alcohol, consult a medical professional.

Common Causes

Even if you know alcohol makes you feel poorly, it can sometimes be hard to figure out the root cause of the problem. Symptoms may be caused by a few different conditions. The main cause of alcohol intolerance is a problem in how the body breaks down alcohol.

Alcohol Intolerance

Having an alcohol intolerance is a genetic condition that means your body can’t process alcohol easily. With this condition, you have an inactive or less-active form of the chemical that breaks down alcohol in your body.

When you drink alcohol, your liver first breaks down alcohol into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. Your body uses a chemical called aldehyde dehydrogenase, or ALDH2, to break down acetaldehyde. When broken down, acetaldehyde can’t hurt you. However, in some people, ALDH2 does not work correctly, resulting in alcohol intolerance.

Alcohol Allergy

An allergy to alcohol itself is very rare as the body naturally produces small amounts of alcohol on its own. It’s more likely that you have an allergy to a specific ingredient in your drink. Alcoholic drinks may contain allergens, which can range from wheat to egg proteins. Allergens in your drink may be the cause of your symptoms. You may be able to drink alcohol if you can avoid the specific ingredient that makes you feel unwell.

Medication Interacting with Alcohol

Some prescriptions advise against consuming alcohol alongside the medicine to avoid intensifying the effects of the substances. Therefore, several drugs may make you feel very sick when taken with alcohol. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist to make sure that your drugs are safe to take with alcohol.

Alcohol Sensitivity & Age

Alcohol sensitivity can develop with age. Older adults tend to get drunk quicker than younger adults because their alcohol tolerance decreases. The reason for this decrease is due to a couple of natural changes the body goes through:

  • Higher Body Fat Percentage: As you age, you lose muscle and water, and gain body fat. A higher blood alcohol level when you drink is the result of this change in your body’s composition.
  • Changes in Liver Health: Liver functionality declines with age. The liver is unable to break down alcohol as fast as it could when you were younger. Therefore, alcohol stays in your system longer than it used to.

Risk Factors

Doctors have found that a problem with ALDH2 (the enzyme that helps break down the byproduct of alcohol) is genetic. Therefore, it is likely that your family members are at risk for the same problem. The main risk factors for having a problem with ALDH2 is being of East Asian descent, especially:

  • Chinese
  • Korean
  • Japanese

Alcohol Intolerance Treatment

Even if you only have mild symptoms of alcohol intolerance, you should avoid alcohol. Research has shown that some people with mild symptoms of intolerance can get used to the symptoms of excess acetaldehyde in their bodies. However, acetaldehyde is still highly toxic and can cause cancer.

Unfortunately, the only treatment for alcohol intolerance is avoiding alcohol. No drug will help you avoid the symptoms of alcohol intolerance or lessen your cancer risk.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.

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