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Alcohol and Asthma

One of my favourite websites is Greatist—a science-backed health and fitness website that makes it easy to demystify all of the health information out there on the Web. While a great resource for everybody, Greatist is aimed at twenty- and thirty-somethings, and as such, alcohol is a pretty commonly discussed topic. Now, here’s the thing—I’m looking at this objectively. I, for whatever reason, before even becoming close to legal age (which is 18 here in Manitoba), decided I wasn’t interested in drinking alcohol. Seven years later and I still haven’t—maybe I should have left this post to one of the Asthma.Net contributors who has more personal experience in this area than I do… Or those who’d like to imbibe a few adult beverages in the name of science and education ;).
With that said… (And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it countless more times) Your asthma may vary! Alcohol may or may not affect your asthma—or, certain drinks may affect you, and others may not. Be informed, plan ahead, keep your inhaler close by, and be aware of your body—a task that can be made more challenging, of course, with alcohol in the mix!

Party rockers in the houseeee tonight… (I successfully got Hot N Cold stuck in Health Union Community Director Ketki’s head when I submitted a post… I couldn’t resist another go! Also clearly all the pop music I know is from 2008-2011…)

So, what’s the deal with alcohol and asthma?
Some people with asthma are sensitive to sulfites—about 10% of people with asthma may experience asthma symptoms related to ingesting sulfites1, 2, a product often used as a food additive to prevent discoloration of foods, or to keep medications stable3. Some wines can be high in sulfites, however, sulfite-free varieties are available, you might just have to do a bit of hunting.
Sulfites might also be present the mixers involved in certain cocktails—you might opt to stray away from alcoholic beverages and just have a mocktail instead—a bonus for your friends who now have a designated driver!—but, it’s best to request the ingredient list for mocktails, too—these may still, even sans alcohol, contain sulfites, just like food does2. Some people also feel that carbonated beverages may make their asthma worse, so, depending on your choice of drinks, this may be worth considering, too.

Another component of some alcoholic beverages that might trigger your asthma is histamine1. A familiar word for anyone with allergies, histamines are a substance our bodies produce when an allergic reaction occurs—these then cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction: itching of the eyes, nose, and skin, watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, rashes, wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath—you got it, asthma symptoms—and gastrointestinal trouble like diarrhea and abdominal cramping4. Some foods, as well as alcohol, can contain histamines, which may cause or worsen allergic responses—beer and wine, for example, as well as ciders, can contain histamines, or cause your body to release more histamine4—if you’re sensitive to histamine, or have allergies, be aware of these things when you have a few drinks.
And, not to be the bearer of bad news or anything (sorry), but remember—just like everything, your triggers may change over time1. You know, just to keep things interesting.

How likely is it that alcohol is causing my asthma to get worse?
A third of people report that alcohol makes their breathing worse2. If you’re in the tenth of people that has found sulfites trigger your asthma or cause allergic reactions, be aware of this, and take steps to help minimize the effects of alcohol on your breathing. And, just because it’s not on the list above, doesn’t mean that it can’t trigger your asthma—the effects of alcohol on your breathing can onset within minutes, or hours, so sometimes it might be hard to tell what’s going on. Your tolerance may vary, too—a sip or two may make your lungs act up for some people—or beverages—and others it might take a lot more1. Not much different than how some people get buzzed on a pretty conservative amount of alcohol, and others seem totally fine with an excessive amount of alcohol in their system (note that i said seem totally fine—and, they probably think they are, too).

Okay, that’s nice. I’m going to drink anyways—how can I do that safely?
A night out doesn’t mean an exception to carrying your inhaler with you at all times—have it ready in case you need it. It’s also often a good idea to let a friend know that you have asthma, just in case (since alcohol can, of course, impair judgement, if you’re out for the evening, your friend of choice might be your designated driver for the night. They don’t have to hover, just be aware. And, let’s be realistic here… While I can’t find any statistics—surprisingly—I know more than one person who has destroyed a phone while drinking (and, if this article from Time Techland about people getting “drunk phones” to not risk the safety of their smartphone while drinking is any indication… the numbers are high!), consider your chances of not losing your inhaler during the course of the evening… Giving a backup to your DD might be something to think about. If you have had allergic reactions to certain types of alcohol (or sulfites) in the past, carrying an antihistamine and epinephrine might be a smart move if you plan on drinking—check with your doctor.4

And a final note… Stay hydrated.
I know, I sound like your mom. (We just care, is all.) Whether it’s induced by the diuretic effects of alcohol, sweating it out on the club dance floor or summer heat, our airways need moisture to work efficiently. So, drink up—just help your body out a bit with some water every so often—you’ll probably feel better the next day and it’s one more simple step that might help keep your asthma in check, too.

And remember… the only way to truly avoid asthma triggering your asthma is to not drink… But, if you’re going to do it—planning ahead can help you stay healthy.

How does alcohol affect your asthma? What do you do to deal with this? Let our community know in the comments.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.



  • Richard Faust
    3 years ago

    Hi Kerri – thanks for the insights and humor. Some alcohol would actually send me into sneezing fits. This earlier article looks at the percentages of asthma patients with certain alcohol induced difficulties and some of the potential reasons: Hope your friends don’t take too much advantage of the permanent designated driver status . Best, Richard ( Team)

  • JanetH
    3 years ago

    All good points. From someone who’s been drinking most of my adult life, let me add a few more:
    1. You can choose to have just one drink. Or none.
    2. Some people say clear liquor is less likely to exacerbate certain conditions such as migraines. I don’t know about asthma.
    3. Same with white whine versus red, although the sulfite issue is always there.
    4. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels inside your nose, and for me at least, generally makes me more congested. One drink is usually alright; more than one, I’m stuffed. And that can make me start feeling like I’m getting close to asthma trouble.
    5. Beer makes me stuffed up, so I don’t bother anymore, although I like the taste.
    6. Any time I drink when going out, of course I have my rescue meds with me. And order a water alongside my drink.

  • Kerri MacKay moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks for your thoughts from the “real world”, Janet! :]

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