Asthma and alcohol

It may not be as well-known as asthma triggers like smoking, dust, pets or pollution, but alcohol can quickly trigger asthma symptoms for some people.

Everyone is different when it comes to alcohol. Some people notice asthma symptoms – tight chest, wheezing, feeling breathless – after just a few sips. You may find you can have one or two drinks without problems. Or you might not have any reaction until the following day.

What alcoholic drinks are more likely to trigger asthma symptoms?

For some people, symptoms are triggered when they drink any kind of alcohol; others tell us that it’s only certain alcoholic drinks that cause a problem. Wine is the most common trigger and there’s some evidence that it brings on symptoms the most quickly.

  • Alcoholic drinks most likely to trigger your asthma symptoms are red wine, white wine, cider and beer.
  • Clear spirits like gin and vodka are considered more ‘asthma friendly’ because they contain less histamine and fewer sulphites.

So, why does alcohol make asthma symptoms worse?

Alcohol contains substances known to trigger asthma symptoms:

Histamine is a natural food chemical. It’s the same substance that’s released in your body when you have an allergic reaction. There are high levels of it in wine. And it could trigger asthma symptoms if you’re sensitive to it.

Sulphur dioxide is a type of sulphite. Sulphites are used in a range of foods and drinks as preservatives. They are produced naturally when beer and wine are made, and more may be added to wine to stop it continuing to ferment in the bottle. Some people are more sensitive to sulphites.

Drinking alcohol can make you more likely to react to other triggers

Some studies have also shown that people who drink above the recommended amount of alcohol per week become more sensitive to other asthma triggers, for example pollen.

How to cut your risk of asthma symptoms from alcoholic drinks

“As with any asthma triggers, the best advice is to make sure you’re taking your preventer medicine every day as prescribed so you’re less likely to react,” says expert asthma nurse Kathy.

Here are Kathy’s other essential tips…

Choose your alcohol wisely – or avoid it altogether

“Stick to the drinks you know you’re OK with. Or you could try some non-alcoholic alternatives. It’s also possible to get hold of low-sulphite wines.

“But remember that triggers can change, so even if you notice a specific alcoholic drink has only recently become a trigger, that’s not unusual.”

Always have your reliever handy…

“…and let friends know when you might need your reliever, and how they can help you if you get asthma symptoms.

“I really recommend having a picture of your up-to-date asthma action plan on your phone so it’s easy for you and any friends or colleagues to see what to do if your symptoms get worse. 

“Remember that if you’ve had a few drinks you may not be as quick to spot or take action to deal with your asthma symptoms developing.”

Don’t skip your preventer medicines

“Taking your preventer medicine every day as prescribed is the best defence against any of your asthma triggers. It stops your airways being as sensitive and likely to react.

“You might forget your evening preventer after a night out if you’ve had a few drinks. So why not take it before you go out instead?"  

If alcohol’s a new trigger for you, see your GP or asthma nurse

“Book yourself in for an asthma review. This is a good chance to talk through any symptoms you’ve had and any patterns you’ve noticed – for example, which drinks have affected you.

“A review is also a good chance to talk about your asthma medicines and how they’re working for you.”

Talk to older children with asthma about the risks of alcohol

“If you’ve a teenager in the house with asthma, make sure they understand that alcohol might trigger their asthma symptoms.

“So whether they’re going to their first festival, or starting out at college, it’s good for them to be aware of how to look after their asthma if they’re having a drink.”

If drinking’s becoming a problem…

“If you’re concerned that you, or someone you know, may have a drink problem, there’s a lot of good advice and support available to help you.”

 

Last updated December 2018

Next review due December 2021