I’m allergic to sulfa and I seem to have an allergic reaction to some wines as well. Are sulfa and sulfites related?Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010
Q: I’m allergic to sulfa and I seem to have an allergic reaction to some wines as well. Are sulfa and sulfites related?
A: This is a great question, because it is source of confusion for many people. Therefore, I thought I should imbibe before answering.
Allergies to sulfa and reactions to consuming wine are unrelated. You will not encounter Sulfa in wine as it refers to a group of antibiotics used in medicine, not wine making. Wine does contain sulfites which I will talk more about below.
An ‘allergic reaction to some wines’ has three general causes, one allergic and two non-allergic. Sulfites, a common preservative, are added to almost all wines and many foods requiring the label “Contains Sulfites”. Alarmingly, according to the FDA, as many as 1in100 people have a true Sulfite Allergy. Sulfites can trigger an asthmatic reaction, making it difficult to breathe. Truly, severe reactions are restricted to people who take daily asthma medication. If you have not experienced problems eating a dried apricot or drinking clear grape juice, you do not have a true sulfite allergy.
The two non-allergic causes are Flushing and Red Wine Headache. Many people have facial flushing, occasionally associated with nausea and lightheadedness. This is sometimes related to histamines contained in wine and may be helped by taking an antihistamine prior to consumption. In others, it is related to a lack of alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme which breaks down alcohol. The lack of this enzyme occurs more commonly in people of Asian ancestry. Red Wine Headache likely has multiple causes, occurs within one hour of consumption and is not related to sulfites. In my personal experience, a Hangover begins three to six hours after consumption, is related to total alcohol consumed and is related to dehydration. Many sufferers of Red Wine Headache are helped by taking an aspirin one hour before consumption and drinking one glass of water for each glass of wine consumed. Let us know if either suggestion helps you!
Craig W. Senders MD
Professor of Otolaryngology (Ear Nose and Throat)
Owner and Winemaker Senders Wines