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Food and Alcohol

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Food and alcohol are not common asthma triggers. Some people with asthma are sensitive to food additives, such as sulfites. People with asthma may also have food allergies. Avoiding foods you are sensitive or allergic to can help reduce your asthma symptoms.1

A balanced diet can improve overall health, including asthma symptoms. Certain foods may reduce inflammation. Caffeine may help by relaxing the airways. On the other hand, alcohol may trigger symptoms, especially for people with aspirin-induced asthma. Talk to your doctor about how food and alcohol affect your asthma.2-4

How do I know if a food reaction is an allergy or asthma?

Food allergies are more common than food-triggered asthma symptoms. If you have a food allergy, asthma can worsen your allergic reaction. It may be hard to tell the difference between allergic reactions and asthma attacks. If you have symptoms other than typical asthma symptoms after eating, it may be an allergic reaction.1

Talk to your doctor if you notice symptoms happening around meals. Your doctor may find that a food sensitivity triggers asthma if:5

  • Symptoms happen within minutes to a few hours after eating
  • Symptoms are triggered by apparently unrelated foods
  • You are more sensitive to prepared foods than food you make at home
  • Symptoms go away after you reduce your consumption of a food additive

What foods and drinks trigger asthma symptoms?

Foods and drinks are not common asthma triggers. But for some people with asthma, food additives trigger symptoms. Up to 10 percent of people with asthma may have symptoms after consuming sulfites. People with sulfite sensitivity tend to have more severe asthma.1,5

There are isolated cases of other food additives triggering asthma. But there is little evidence that these are common triggers. We need larger studies to understand these possible triggers. Possible triggers include:5

  • Sodium benzoate: food preservative in acidic foods
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG): used as a flavor enhancer
  • Tartrazine: yellow food coloring
  • Spearmint, peppermint, and menthol: flavorings in gum or toothpaste

How does diet affect asthma outcomes?

A balanced diet can help you maintain overall physical and mental health. There is not much evidence for a specific diet to improve asthma symptoms. But certain foods and nutrients can help reduce inflammation. Good steps to take include:2,7,8

  • Increasing antioxidants from fruits and vegetables
  • Increasing vitamin D from milk, eggs, and salmon
  • Increasing omega-3 fatty acids from certain fish, nuts, and seeds
  • Avoiding foods that cause gas and bloating
  • Avoiding salicylates, which may cause sensitivity
  • Avoiding allergy-triggering foods and sulfites

Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet.

How does alcohol affect asthma outcomes?

Asthma increases the risk of having a reaction to alcohol. Alcohol is a common trigger for people with aspirin-induced asthma. One study showed that more than 4 out of 5 people with aspirin-induced asthma report symptoms after drinking alcohol. Symptoms usually start within an hour of beginning to drink.9

Wine and beer are the adult drinks most likely to cause asthma symptoms. This may be because of high levels of sulfites. Reactions to distilled adult drinks are less common.3,10

Tell your doctor if you drink any alcohol. Certain asthma drugs are not safe if you drink alcohol. Your doctor can also suggest ways to manage your asthma safely. These may include alcohol-free alternatives or low-sulfite wine.10

How does caffeine affect asthma outcomes?

Coffee, tea, chocolate, and some energy drinks contain caffeine. Some medicines and supplements also contain caffeine. Caffeine is chemically similar to theophylline (an older asthma drug). It causes the airways to slightly relax.4

Studies have shown that people who drink coffee may have a lower risk of asthma. We do not know if coffee directly lowers the risk of asthma. It is possible that other factors link coffee and asthma. We need more research to understand this link.11

Low or moderate amounts of caffeine are safe for asthma. But caffeine should not be used in place of asthma drugs. Caffeine will not provide quick relief or have a strong effect on breathing. In addition, high amounts of caffeine can lead to side effects and worsen acid reflux. And acid reflux can trigger asthma symptoms.4

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