For Those Who Experience Adverse Reactions to a Glass of Wine

Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Are you one of those unfortunate wine lovers who have an adverse reaction to drinking wine? Do you peer at a glass of wine and wonder if the wine gods are going to strike you with a bevy of unpleasantries: wheezing, headache, facial flushing, sinus inflammation?

Let’s analyze what can cause these reactions and how you may prevent them, or at least make them more tolerable. Is your negative reaction allergic or non-allergic? (a hangover is typically not an allergic reaction). Although the symptoms may be similar, the causes are quite diverse. Disclaimer: none of the following commentary should be considered medical advice.

First, there are those of us that have an allergic reaction (stuffy nose, itchy eyes) to sulfites present in wines. Although naturally present in all wines, many winemakers add additional sulfites to their barrels in order to preserve the wines. Red grape skins have natural preservative compounds, thus reducing the need for added sulfites. If you can tolerate red wine more than white wine, sulfites may be the reason. What to do? Organic wines tend to have fewer sulfites. Seek them out.

Second, adverse reactions such as headaches, itchy eyes and runny nose may be metabolic rather than allergic. Only 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites. There are certainly more consumers who have allergic-like reactions to wine. Similar outcome you say, I still feel terrible, so what’s the difference? The difference: ways to overcome the indications. Here are non-allergic influences that cause allergic-like symptoms:

\1) Histamines: Compounds present in many foods (especially strawberries) trigger the production of histamines in humans (that’s right: foods don’t contain histamines, humans produce histamines). These compounds are naturally found in the skins of red grapes (much more than in white grapes). Reactions include headaches and facial flushing. If you can tolerate white wine more than red wine, this may be the cause. What to do? Take an over-the-counter anti-histamine before drinking and see if your reaction is the same. If it’s not, you’ve isolated your problem. If the same – read on.

2) Ethanol: Naturally present in alcohol, when ingested it breaks down into a compound called acetaldehyde. In the bottle, this volatile compound imparts the fruity aromas present in wine; in your body (in sufficient quantity) it irritates the membranes of the brain, causing headaches and facial flushing. Our liver is designed to mitigate this effect. However, an overloaded or diseased liver is not adequately able to remove high levels of acetaldehydes from the bloodstream. What to do? Drink in moderation (defined differently for each liver), drink copious amounts of water to flush out the acetaldehydes and have your physician check your liver functions.

3) Congeners: A compound found more in red wines than white, which is believed to cause hangovers. When consumed, this nasty element actually is kept under control by the alcohol in our bloodstream. When the alcohol leaves your system, the congeners then go to work – hours after (the next morning?) the wine has been consumed. What to do? Moderation, moderation, moderation.

4) Modern agriculture: Many chemicals used to treat plants and soils are toxic. If fruits and vegetables are not washed and cleaned properly, these toxins may cause many of the allergic-like symptoms noted above. Making matters worse, since grapes are sensitive to handling after being harvested, they typically go straight to the crusher – no washing, no thorough removal of particles of rotting leaves. What to do? Seek out organic wines.

5) Cheap wine: It’s true; you are more likely to have a negative reaction to mass-produced bulk wines. Why? These wines are typically subjected to high levels of chemical additives and other manipulative methods. Not to mention that the growing, harvesting and winemaking techniques may be lacking in cleanliness and consumer health concerns. What to do? I’m sure you can answer this question yourself.

For those unfortunate to have negative reactions to wine consumption, I suggest you find ways to isolate the causes and consult your physician for medical advice on consuming wine.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.



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