Alcohol

Asthma symptoms may be triggered by any kind of alcohol, or by a particular drink.

Have you ever found that alcohol seems to make your asthma symptoms worse? For some people, symptoms are triggered when they drink any kind of alcohol, while others may only find symptoms come on when they have a particular kind of drink.

According to an Asthma UK survey, 75 per cent of people with asthma say alcohol triggers their symptoms. Red wine is the main culprit, followed by white wine, beer and then cider. 

Actor, writer and presenter Stephen Fry finds Champagne can lead to symptoms: "I have to make sure that I avoid too much champagne because it triggers my asthma symptoms," he says. "Champagne can leave a lot of people feeling poorly the next day, but for me it is far more serious because it could trigger a potentially fatal asthma attack."

Why can alcohol increase your risk of asthma symptoms or an asthma attack?

You might be surprised to know that it's usually the different substances found in alcoholic drinks, rather than the alcohol itself, that trigger symptoms, according to current research. As well as ethanol (pure alcohol), alcoholic drinks contain a natural food chemical called histamine. Histamine is the same substance that's released in the body when you have an allergic reaction. In some people, the histamine in alcohol drinks may trigger asthma symptoms.

Preservatives called sulphites are added to some alcoholic drinks, including wine. Between 3 per cent and 10 per cent of people with asthma are sensitive to sulphites, and symptoms can vary from mild wheezing to a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.

When's the trigger most likely to affect you?

You're most likely to notice symptoms almost immediately after drinking, but people's sensitivity varies. Some may be able to have one or two drinks without noticing symptoms, whereas others may have symptoms after just a few sips.

What's the best way to reduce the risk of the trigger affecting you?

If you think a particular drink is triggering your symptoms, try avoiding it. Scientists are still not sure exactly how alcoholic drinks cause asthma symptoms, so it's a case of trying different drinks and seeing which ones you're sensitive to. Always keep your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you when you're drinking, in case you experience symptoms.

Remember that triggers can change, so even if you notice an alcoholic drink has only recently become a trigger, that's not unusual. Your responses to a trigger tend to be worse when your asthma isn't well managed. If you're having a reaction to alcohol, see your GP or asthma nurse for a review.

Sonia Munde, Head of Asthma UK Helpline and Nurse Manager, says: “Always take your reliever inhaler if you’re planning on going out drinking, and make sure that your friends and colleagues know what to do if you experience symptoms or have an asthma attack. I recommend having a picture of your up- to- date written asthma action plan on your phone.” 

Other ways alcohol can affect your asthma

If you drink alcohol a lot, you're more likely to feel anxious and depressed, which might mean you don't look after your health so well, and that could affect your asthma. Know your limits - check out Drinkaware's Unit & Calorie Calculator to track what you're drinking and get more facts about alcohol and your health.

Last updated August 2017

Next review due February 2019