Why is alcohol an asthma trigger?
Some people with asthma are sensitive to substances found in alcohol which can trigger their asthma symptoms. These are called sulphites and histamines:
- Sulphites are used in some food and drinks as preservatives. Look out for E numbers E221 to E228. They are produced naturally when wine, beer and cider are made. Extra sulphites are also added to wine, beer and cider to stop bacteria growing.
- Histamine is a chemical that is released in your body when you have an allergic reaction. Histamine can also be found in many alcoholic drinks.
More research is needed to say how many people with asthma are sensitive to alcohol. But one study found around 1 in 3 people with asthma said alcohol triggered their symptoms.
The best way to know if alcohol is one of your asthma triggers is to take note of any symptoms when you drink alcohol.
What alcoholic drinks trigger asthma?
Some people find their asthma symptoms are triggered when they drink any kind of alcohol. Others find only certain alcoholic drinks cause a problem.
Wine (red and white) is the most common alcohol trigger for asthma symptoms. Beer and cider can also trigger symptoms for some people. This is because wine, beer and cider contain higher levels of sulphites and histamines.
Clear spirits such as gin and vodka contain lower levels of sulphites and histamines. But this does not mean they will be safe for everyone with asthma.
Be aware that soft drinks that are sometimes mixed with alcohol, like fizzy drinks and juices, can also contain sulphites and histamines.
How quickly do people react to alcohol?
Some people notice asthma symptoms after just a few sips of alcohol. Other people can have one or two drinks without problems.
Some people also find that alcohol makes them more sensitive to their other asthma triggers, like cigarette smoke and pollen.
Everyone is different. It’s helpful to know how you react to alcohol so you can try to lower your risk.
Remember, if you’ve had a few alcoholic drinks, you may not be as quick to take action to deal with your asthma symptoms developing.
Always keep your reliever inhaler with you
so you can deal with asthma symptoms quickly if you do get them.
Is it safe to drink alcohol and take asthma medicines?
The NHS says it is usually safe to drink alcohol when using your preventer and reliever inhalers.
It is a good idea to avoid drinking alcohol if you are taking steroid tablets as it can irritate your stomach.
You can talk to your GP, nurse or pharmacist for more advice about drinking alcohol when you’re taking medicines.
See your GP or nurse if
- you're using your blue reliever inhaler three times a week or more or
- you’re regularly using extra doses of your MART or anti-inflammatory reliever (AIR) inhaler most days.
These are signs that your asthma is not well controlled.
Lower your risk of asthma symptoms from alcohol
1. Choose your alcohol wisely – or avoid it altogether
If you know certain alcoholic drinks trigger your asthma, try and avoid them. Instead, choose the drinks that do not affect your asthma. Or you could try non-alcoholic alternatives. It’s also possible to buy low-sulphite wines. But remember that even low-sulphite wines 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 with you.”
2. Don’t skip your preventer medicine
Taking your preventer medicine every day as prescribed is the best way to protect yourself from your asthma triggers. It keeps the inflammation and swelling down in your airways, so you’ll be less likely to react badly to your asthma triggers.
“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?” says Dr Andy.
3. Share your asthma action plan with friends and family
An up-to-date asthma action plan can let people know when you need your reliever inhaler and how they can help you if you get asthma symptoms.
Keep it on your phone so it’s easy for your friends and family to see what to do if your symptoms get worse.
4. Have your annual asthma review
An annual asthma review is a good chance to talk through any triggers and symptoms you’ve noticed.
Tell your GP or asthma nurse about any alcoholic drinks that have affected you or if certain drinks have started to trigger symptoms when they didn’t before.
5. Talk to teenagers with asthma about the risks of alcohol
If there’s a teenager at home with asthma, help them to 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 alcohol could trigger their symptoms.
Need more support and advice?
NHS alcohol guidelines
To reduce the health risks of alcohol, the NHS recommend people drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, over 3 days or more. That’s about six medium (175ml) glasses of wine or six pints of beer.
If you’re concerned that you, or someone you know, may be drinking too much there’s lots of support to help you:
- The NHS has advice to help you reduce or stop drinking alcohol.
- Download the NHS Drink Free Days app to help you manage your drinking.
- Speak to your GP for advice and support.
- Find alcohol support services in your area.
- Drinkline is a free national alcohol helpline. Call 0300 123 1110 to speak to someone in confidence.