Q: I have bad seasonal allergies. This spring I've attended a few wine tastings and my hay fever seems to get even worse. Can drinking wine contribute to my allergy? –Dana
A: Hay fever, the broad category that encompasses “seasonal allergies," is one of the most common types of allergies, affecting around one in five people, according to the Mayo Clinic. The symptoms include sneezing, itchy eyes, runny noses and congestion. Intolerance to alcohol, either to the alcohol itself or to the ingredients found in an alcoholic beverage, can produce symptoms of runny noses and congestion. Sound familiar?
Figuring out what is going on when someone reports nasal symptoms can be tricky—especially when it comes to magnitudes of reactions, as in your situation, as these type of symptoms can sometimes compound upon each other (for instance, when sneezing leads to a headache).
According to Dr. Corinne Bowser, spokesperson for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, a true seasonal allergic reaction works like this: A subject encounters an allergen by inhaling a particle and that allergen reacts in the body with IgE, an antibody, which will in turn bind with a mast cell. When that mast cell then explodes (degranulation), the body is flooded with the histamines from that cell, which cause the allergic symptoms.
Dr. Bowser says that one study showed that alcohol has been shown to trigger mast cell degranulation in Japanese populations, but that result has not been replicated with Caucasian populations. Drinking alcohol, therefore, is probably not going to cause an allergic reaction.
It might, however, cause allergy-like symptoms, known as non-allergy rhinitis. People who suffer from seasonal allergies may be likely to also respond to non-allergenic triggers for rhinitis (a stuffy nose and sneezing). A study in Sweden found a high correlation between people who have nasal symptoms after consuming alcohol and those who report suffering from seasonal rhinitis (seasonal allergies), bronchitis or asthma. In addition, women reported greater incidences of nasal symptoms after consuming alcohol. Dr. Bowser says that might be a function of women being less tolerant to alcohol or being more likely to report a problem.
Could the histamines in wine cause a nasal reaction? Scientific studies have conflicting results. Dr. Bowser says maybe: "It's a likely culprit." But others disagree, saying that histamines are very common in the foods that we eat and people would notice a reaction when they ate these other foods. Fred Freitag of the Diamond Headache Clinic says that “there is more histamine in 4 ounces of fish or a serving of eggplant than in 4 ounces of red wine,” when asked about the role dietary histamines might play in causing a wine-related headache, though he noted if one were to have a reaction to dietary histamines, it would probably be a stuffy nose. If you think you might have a histamine intolerance, consider cross-checking your reaction against other foods that contain histamine, such as aged cheeses and fermented products to get a better idea.
Complicating the whole issue is that sometimes allergies can be situational. For instance, Dr. Bowser notes there's such a thing as exercise-induced allergies that are triggered by specific foods or allergies only to combinations of foods and not the foods when eaten individually. Stress has also been shown to exacerbate allergies. It might be worth paying attention beyond what you’ve specifically consumed to the entire setting in which you feel your symptoms getting worse.