Alcohol and asthma

Find out why alcohol can be an asthma trigger, which drinks are most likely to set off symptoms, and how to lower your risk.

Why is alcohol a trigger for some people?

Some people are sensitive to substances contained in alcohol which are known to trigger asthma symptoms. These are called histamines and sulphites.

  • Histamine is a natural food and drink chemical. It’s the same substance that’s released in your body when you have an allergic reaction.
  • Sulphites are used in a range of foods and drinks as preservatives. They’re produced naturally when beer, wine, and cider are made, and more may be added to wine to stop it continuing to ferment in the bottle.

How quickly do people react to alcohol?

Everyone is different. Some people notice symptoms - tight chest, wheezing, feeling breathless - after just a few sips.

Others can have one or two drinks without problems. Some people might not have any reaction until the following day.

Some people find that alcohol makes them more sensitive to their other triggers. It’s important to know how you react to try to lower your risk of asthma symptoms.

Make sure you always carry your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you, so you can deal with symptoms quickly if you do get them.

What alcoholic drinks are more likely to trigger asthma symptoms?

For some people, symptoms are triggered when they drink any kind of alcohol; others tell us that it’s only certain alcoholic drinks that cause a problem.

Alcoholic drinks most likely to trigger your asthma symptoms are wine (red, white, rose and sparkling), beer, and cider.

This is because they often contain high levels of sulphites or histamine.

Five tips to lower your risk of asthma symptoms from alcoholic drinks

1. Choose your alcohol wisely – or avoid it altogether

Cut out any type of drink you think brings on your symptoms to see if avoiding it makes a difference. Then stick to the drinks you know you’re okay with. Or you could try some non-alcoholic alternatives.

It’s also possible to get low-sulphite wines. Remember that even low-sulphite wines will contain some sulphites.

Be aware that triggers can change. “It’s not unusual for a drink to trigger symptoms where it didn’t before,” says Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma + Lung UK’s in-house GP, “so always have your reliever inhaler handy.”

Did you know? Some studies have also shown that people who drink above the recommended amount of alcohol per week (more than 14 units) become more sensitive to other asthma triggers - for example, pollen.

2. Share your asthma action plan with friends and family

Your asthma action plan lets people know when you might need your reliever inhaler and how they can help you if you get asthma symptoms. Make sure your asthma plan is regularly updated with your GP or asthma nurse.

You could keep a picture of it on your phone so it’s easy for your friends and family to see what to do if your symptoms get worse.

“Remember - if you’ve had a few drinks you may not be as quick to spot or take action to deal with your asthma symptoms developing,” says Dr Andy. “Sharing your action plan with friends and family could lower your risk of an asthma attack.”

3. Don’t skip your preventer medicine

Taking your preventer medicine every day as prescribed is the best defence against any of your asthma triggers. It stops your airways being as sensitive and likely to react.

“You might forget your evening preventer after a night out if you’ve had a few drinks. So, why not take it before you go out instead?” suggests Dr Andy.

4. Have an asthma review

An asthma review is a good chance to talk through any symptoms you’ve had and any patterns you’ve noticed.

For example, which drinks have affected you or if certain alcoholic drinks have started to trigger symptoms when they didn’t before.

“You can update your asthma action plan, and talk about your asthma medicines and how they’re working for you,” says Dr Andy. “Some medicines may be less effective if you’re drinking alcohol regularly.”

5. Talk to young adults with asthma about the risks of alcohol

If there’s a young adult in the house with asthma, make sure they understand that alcohol might trigger their asthma symptoms.

“Whether they’re going to their first festival or starting college, it’s good for young people to be aware of how to look after their asthma if they’re having a drink, and understand how drinking could trigger their symptoms,” says Dr Andy.

Need more support and advice?

If you’re concerned you, or someone you know, may have a drink problem, there’s a lot of good advice and support available to help you.

Get support

Call our Helpline for support with your condition. Get advice on your medicines, symptoms or travelling with a lung condition, or just call us to say hello.

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