Plenty of people are allergic to foods. But you can also be sensitive or have an intolerance to specific ingredients in what you’re eating or drinking.
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Beer is no exception. There are plenty of ingredients in beer that can make some people sick, even if they drink moderately, according to family medicine physician Mark Rood, MD.
Fortunately for the beer lovers, reactions to drinking beer are rarely life-threatening. Still, you should be aware that because beer is such a diverse food category with a wide variety of ingredients (depending on what kind of beer you’re drinking), chances are you can experience a variety of reactions to different kinds of beer.
Allergy vs. intolerance or sensitivity
If you get a reaction of any kind after you drink beer, it may be helpful to understand the difference between true food allergies and having an “intolerance” or “sensitivity” to the ingredients found in your beer.
What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance or sensitivity? It’s based on how your body responds.
When you have a true food allergy, your immune system causes the reaction. True food allergies cause unpleasant symptoms such as hives, itching, swelling, stomach cramps, dizziness, vomiting and diarrhea.
At their worst, allergies can also cause life-threatening emergencies such as loss of consciousness or anaphylaxis.
On the other hand, when you have a food sensitivity or food intolerance, your digestive system triggers the response. Symptoms are typically less serious and are often limited to digestive problems like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramping and nausea.
In general, food sensitivities and intolerances are more common than food allergies.
Common reactions to beer sensitivity
When it comes to beer, people with sensitivities will typically experience a combination of symptoms. After drinking beer, they may experience a combination of hives, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, sneezing, wheezing and abdominal pain.
You can see a few of these symptoms can be more in line with allergic reactions like hives, sneezing and wheezing (if you experience these, you should avoid that beer and talk with your doctor). But most symptoms are more commonly from the food sensitivity or intolerance category.
“With beer, people typically don’t have true allergies, but have more of a sensitivity or intolerance to one of the components that make up the beverage itself – for example, a basic ingredient, chemical or preservative. These can create a variety of symptoms that resemble either an allergy or a sensitivity,” says Dr. Rood.
“The most common reactions to beer are specific to types of grains, modified grain proteins, hops, yeast, molds or barleys,” he says. “Sensitivities are also possible to the additives that are present in some beers, including sulphites, sodium benzoate or tartrazine.”
Regardless of the reactions you experience, it’s always best to avoid beer or any other food product that causes your body to react negatively.
Do GMOs in beer cause sensitivity?
There’s been a lot of discussion on social media about the potential harmful effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They are found in many processed foods – and in some types of beer.
Many beers contain genetically modified corn. So some say people should stick to organic beer. But if you avoid beers with GMOs, will that reduce your chances of beer sensitivity?
Not necessarily, Dr. Rood says.
“It would be very difficult to prove that GMO-containing beers are more allergy- or sensitivity-inducing than GMO-free beers. Or that ‘organic’ beers are categorically superior just by being organic,” he says.
Is European beer safer?
Another rumor making its rounds online is that European beers are safer than beers from U.S. breweries. Dr. Rood says it’s not that simple.
“Staying with European beers will not prevent sensitivity in everyone,” he says. “As allergic tendencies vary from person to person, it’s best to find a brand or type of beer that doesn’t cause any problems for you personally. Then stick with that variety.
“Put simply, the best way to avoid sensitivity or alcohol intolerance to any beer is simply to not consume the product to which you are sensitive.”
What to do if you think you’re allergic to beer
If you do tend to experience allergy-like symptoms after drinking just one or two beers, it’s really a good idea to see your doctor.
“Your physician can help by obtaining a detailed history, performing a physical examination and conducting blood tests and other types of testing to rule out other causes for your symptoms,” Dr. Rood says. “Should you experience itching or hives, an over-the-counter, non-sedating antihistamine can also be helpful.”
When to seek immediate help
Get help right away for a reaction to your beer that involves any of these symptoms:
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing.
- Abdominal cramping or pain.
If you have symptoms of anaphylaxis — a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction — seek immediate medical attention. With anaphylaxis, severe itching of the eyes or face can progress within minutes to more serious symptoms.
In general, use common sense. “Don’t worry too much about what beer theories are hot online,” Dr. Rood says. “Sample away and find beers that you like. If you find some that don’t agree with you, steer clear of those in the future, and rest assured that there will plenty of others to choose from.”