If you’re like me, you enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Likewise, if you’re like me, you’ve noticed your asthma sometimes worsens afterwards, particularly the next day.
I’m not talking about a hangover here. If you drink in moderation you shouldn’t experience one of those. But that’s beside the point.
What I’m referring to here is increased nasal stuffiness, sneezing, wheezing and chest tightness. Sometimes I find myself using my rescue inhaler more frequently.
I know I’m not alone in making this observation because many studies have been performed on the topic in recent years. RespiratoryReviews.com notes a study done in Berth Australia in 2000.
The study noted that, “‘Of the 366 respondents, 33 percent indicated that "alcoholic drinks had been associated with the triggering of asthma on at least two occasions.’ In most cases, the asthma attack developed within one hour of alcohol consumption and was of moderate severity.”
Although 92 percent of those who said they had asthma symptoms after drinking alcohol noted this occurred after drinking either white or red wine.
The researchers reported that, “Wine-induced asthmatic reactions were reported more often by women, by those taking oral steroids, by individuals who had reported their first asthma attack at a younger age, and by those who had previously visited an alternative health practitioner for asthma.”
An April 19, 2010, article at the New York Times, “The Claim: Alcohol Worsens Allergies,” links alcohol with allergy and asthma symptoms.
A study done in 2004 in Sweden basically confirmed the findings of the Perth, Australia study, that alcohol, particularly red and white wine, triggered asthma symptoms, and most of the attacks occurred in women.
So why does alcohol trigger asthma/allergies?
Histamines: A natural product of the fermentation process to make beer, wine and liquor results in natural chemicals that resemble histamine, which can cause an allergic reaction. Histamine, as you may know, is a chemical in your body that’s released during allergic reaction, and causes swollen glands, increased sputum, uncomfortable feeling, runny eyes, and airway inflammation that worsens asthma.
Sulfites: These are preservatives used mostly in beers and wines that are found naturally in grapes and can increase symptoms of allergies/asthma. It’s harmless in people without asthma.
Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD): Alcohol can worsen the degree of acid reflux. This is where stomach acid works its way up the esophagus to the upper airway and then down the trachea. This can also be worse after eating too much, drinking too much, or while sleeping.
Dehydration: Many experts agree that alcohol causes dehydration. When your lungs become too dry this can trigger asthma, particularly the day after drinking too much.
Bloating: As I wrote in this post, carbonated beverages, meaning beer and pop, “can also cause excess gas and bloating, which may result in the diaphragm being pushed up against the lungs, further compromising them and making it even more difficult to breathe.”
Ironically, despite this recent string of evidence supporting the claim that alcohol makes asthma worse, alcohol was used in ancient times, and as recently as the 1930s, as a remedy for asthma.
Even some recent studies, which you can see here, have shown that alcohol does have a bronchodilating effect – it dilates the air passages in your lungs. However, this effect is mild.
Likewise, as I wrote about in this post, up until about the mid 1950s asthma was believed to be a disease caused by the mind, or anxiety and depression. In his 1860 book, asthma expert Henry Hyde Salter wrote that a shot of brandy, in desperate situations, would give the body a “shock” to knock out the asthma attack.
Of course cigarette smoke was also once recommended for asthma, and now we know the risks of smoking cigarettes far outweigh the advantages. The same may be true regarding alcoholic beverages for some asthmatics. The jury, though, is still out.
Actually, some recent studies have confirmed that pure alcohol does mildly dilate the air passages in the lungs, and studies are ongoing to determine if this should be used in the future for severe asthma nonresponsive to other therapies.
Still, the wise recommendation of most asthma experts is that if you have a history of asthma and/or allergies, you should at least be aware that alcoholic beverages, particularly beer and wine, do have the potential to trigger an asthma/ allergy attack.
So, as with anything in life, it’s up to you to decide if the benefits of what you put in your body outweigh the risks.
A Registered Respiratory Therapist and asthmatic