Alcohol and asthma: What’s the connection?

Asthma is a condition that causes a person’s airways to become narrower, which affects their breathing.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe when someone needs emergency treatment to start breathing again.

Triggers for an asthma attack can vary from person to person, but they include stress, dust, other allergens, and, according to some studies, alcohol.

As there is no cure for asthma, it is important for people to know their triggers and to take steps to prevent an attack.

Alcohol use and asthma

There is little scientific evidence of a link between alcohol and asthma, apart from one study published in 2000 in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

The study, using participants in Australia, asked more than 350 adults to fill out a questionnaire on their allergy triggers related to alcohol.

The findings included:

  • Alcohol triggered an asthma attack on at least two occasions in 33 per cent of people.
  • Respondents found wine particularly allergenic.
  • Most alcohol-related asthma symptoms started within 1 hour of drinking alcohol.
  • Those who reported asthma symptoms mostly had mild to moderate symptoms.

The researchers highlighted sulfites and histamines as two components of some alcoholic beverages that could potentially be allergenic and contribute to an asthma attack.

Sulfites are a preservative that manufacturers commonly use when making wine and beer, but they can also be present in other consumables. People with asthma are often especially sensitive to the effects of sulfites.

Similarly, the researchers suggested histamines might cause allergic reactions. When an allergic reaction occurs, the body produces histamine.

Fermenting alcohol produces histamine, which is present in all alcohol types, including liquor, beer, and wine.

However, it is not clear that the presence of histamine in alcohol or any other external trigger can cause symptoms.

The study from The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology appears to be the only study that suggests this potential link, and there is a lack of further research to confirm it.

Complications caused by alcohol

Indirectly, alcohol consumption could contribute to asthma. Stress often contributes to asthma symptoms. Some people may feel sad or stressed and turn to alcohol in the hope of improving their mood. However, excess alcohol can worsen feelings of stress and take a toll on a person’s health.

Asthma can also produce several complications. It can affect a person’s sleep, engagement in exercise, and work or school attendance. If alcohol worsens these complications, it may also worsen asthma.

Are some drinks safer than others?

If a person with asthma finds that alcohol triggers their symptoms, they may wish to know what drink types are most likely to do this.

Respondents to the survey in the above study said that wine appeared to be the most allergenic alcoholic beverage.

If sulfites do play a role, organic wines that do not have added preservatives may allow people to avoid sulfites. Sulfites in beer could also trigger asthma symptoms.

If alcoholic drinks do contain substances that cause a reaction, the amount a person drinks may also contribute to worsening asthma symptoms.

If one glass of wine or beer has no effect, but a reaction occurs after three glasses, it may be that any allergens are only present in low amounts.

Anyone who finds that alcohol triggers their asthma symptoms may want to try keeping their alcoholic beverage intake low or avoid it altogether.

What is asthma?

Several triggers can cause an asthma attack, and different people can have different triggers.

When a person is exposed to their particular trigger, the airways react by becoming tighter, causing asthma symptoms. People can have several asthma triggers or just one.

Common asthma triggers include:

  • air irritants, including air pollution, chemicals, and smoke
  • common allergens, such as dust mites, cockroaches, moulds, and pet dander
  • exercise
  • medications, including over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin and acetaminophen
  • stress
  • weather extremes, such as very hot or cold days

Doctors will often recommend keeping an asthma journal. In a journal, people track their symptoms, and what they were doing, eating, or drinking when an asthma attack occurred.


Asthma can cause acute symptoms, known as an asthma attack, or less-obvious symptoms, such as a chronic cough at night.

Examples of asthma symptoms include:

  • chest tightness
  • coughing that occurs at a certain time during the day
  • trouble catching the breath
  • wheezing

Asthma is a chronic condition that usually starts in childhood and does not go away, even with treatment. However, children often grow out of asthma and may not have any symptoms or need medications as adults.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, an estimated 25 million people in the United States have asthma.


Asthma treatment involves avoiding asthma triggers and taking medicine to reduce the symptoms. People can also have triggers for asthma, including alcohol.

A doctor may prescribe medications to help people control and treat their asthma. These medications are usually divided into short- and long-acting options.

Short-acting medicines are used to provide immediate relief during an acute asthma attack. These drugs work by opening up the airways, making it easier for a person to breathe. Examples include short-acting beta-2 agonists, such as albuterol.

Long-acting medications aim to reduce inflammation that can lead to an asthma attack.

Examples of these medications include:

  • anti leukotrienes
  • cromolyn sodium
  • immunomodulators
  • inhaled corticosteroids
  • long-acting inhaled beta-2 agonists
  • methylxanthines
  • oral corticosteroids

Finding the right combination of medicines to treat asthma may require trial and error.

As a general rule, if a person finds they need short-acting medications more than twice a week, there may be a better way for them to control their symptoms.


When to see a doctor

Some asthma symptoms need emergency attention. These include the following:

  • coughing up dark brown or bloody mucus
  • difficulty breathing that is unaffected by short-acting medication
  • the onset of a new fever

A person should contact their doctor if they are on medications to control asthma, and they are:

  • using quick-relief asthma medications for more than 2 days a week
  • noticing that mucus is getting thicker or more difficult to clear

People with asthma should see their doctor any time they experience unwanted symptoms or have difficulty managing their symptoms.


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