Updated 23 May 2017

Signs, symptoms and solutions for a wine allergy

Ever wondered why after a lovely afternoon of wine tasting you go home with a headache, blocked nose or even a strange skin rash? You could be suffering from a sensitivity to the sulphites, histamines or glycoproteins in your wine.

Whether it is wine tasting out in the country, a glass of red wine by the fire or just a means of unwinding each day after work, many of us thoroughly enjoy drinking wine. But for some, that glass of wine causes strange allergic symptoms that could indicate a wine intolerance.

Wine intolerance is estimated to affect 8% of people worldwide. The term "wine intolerance", however is a blanket term as there are a number of different compounds in wines that can trigger allergic symptoms. Such compounds include:

Sulphite sensitivity

Of that 8%, it is estimated that 1% suffer from an allergy to sulfites in the wine. Sulfites are sulfur-containing substances that occur naturally in wine but are also added by winemakers to prevent spoiling. Allergic symptoms usually occur in those with another underlying condition such as asthma or hay fever.

The majority of those with a sulphite sensitivity will not experience severe allergic reactions, however wheezing, coughing and chest tightness are believed to affect 5-10% of those who also suffer from asthma, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) explains.

Common symptoms of a sulphur sensitivity include:

- Wheezing

- Tight chest

- Coughing

Sulphites are also present in a number of other food substances such as pickled foods, vinegar, beer and cider, gravy and dried fruits, Allergy UK indicates. It can also be found as a preservative in certain medications and cosmetics.

Histamine sensitivity

There is also research to suggest that histamines in wine could trigger allergic symptoms. Histamines are part of the body's immune response and cause inflammation. They also occur in naturally-fermented products such as wine.

According to an article by Allergy UK, an enzyme called diamine oxidase is responsible for breaking down histamines in the body. Some people have lower levels of diamine oxide, which means that they have a reduced ability lower the level of histamines in the body and are therefore more at risk of allergic symptoms.

Common symptoms include:

- Headaches

- Rashes

- Itching

- Wheezing

- Abdominal pain

Other food substances that are high in histamines include beer and ciders, tofu, parmesan and other cheeses, processed meats and cocoa.

Glycoprotein sensitivity

Additional research suggests that glycoproteins — proteins coated with sugars produced naturally as grapes ferment — may be a culprit.

However, scientists knew little about the structure and function of these substances in wine.In a recent study published in the Journal of Proteome Research researchers discovered 28 different glycoproteins, some of which were identified for the first time. An analysis revealed that some of these glycoproteins had very similar structures to other known allergens such as the proteins found in latex and ragweed. 

A lot more research is needed into glycoproteins and whether or not they cause allergic symptoms.

Read: Alcohol intolerance and pharmacological reactions

How to avoid unpleasant reactions

Although in the majority of cases, sensitivity to wine is not serious, some may wish to avoid it to reduce allergic symptoms.

For those with histamine sensitivities, avoiding foods with high levels of histamines will assist in preventing reactions.

For those with sulphite sensitivities, a similar approach can be taken to avoid high-sulphite foods. For those who enjoy their wine too much to give up entirely, Wine Folly suggests a number of approaches that can be attempted:

Choose red wine over white wine. Wines that are stronger in colour usually have lower levels of sulphites than clearer white wines

- Avoid less acidic wines as these have higher levels of sulphites than more acidic alternatives

Select dry wines with lower sugar content as these require less sulphites to be added

Go organic. Most organic wines do not have additional sulphites added during production and therefore have lower sulphite levels.

Look at the labels - certain wines now have a low-sulphite label on their bottle which will be your best option if you don't know how to differentiate between wines that are high or low in sugar or acidity.

Read more:

10 Strange things that may trigger your allergy

Reduce your allergy risk

Semen and other bizarre allergies 


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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