If You Experience These 9 Subtle Symptoms After Drinking, You Might Be Alcohol Intolerant

If you feel sick as soon as you finish your drink, your body might not be able to process alcohol.

by Carolyn Steber and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
Two women share drinks on a rooftop. Doctors explain subtle symptoms of alcohol intolerance.
Hannah Burton/Bustle

When it comes to drinking, there's a big difference between feeling tipsy and having symptoms of alcohol intolerance. The former is when you get a little loosey-goosey at the bar; the latter is more like you feel sick after sipping on a glass of wine while relaxing at home.

If you have strange symptoms soon after drinking, your body may not be processing alcohol properly. "Alcohol intolerance means your body, specifically the digestive system, does not have the proper enzymes to break down alcohol or the toxins contained in and produced by alcohol," John Mansour, PharmD, RPh, CEO and co-founder of pre-drinking supplement B4, tells Bustle. "There are other ingredients in alcohol that can cause the intolerance, such as grains (gluten/wheat), histamines, sulfites, artificial flavorings, grapes and more. In rare cases, the reaction to alcohol may be a sign of Hodgkin's Lymphoma [a cancer of the lymph nodes]."

"Alcohol intolerance is a way of your body informing you that it is rejecting what is being put in it to process," Sheila Shilati, PsyD, COO of rehab facility Seasons, tells Bustle. "Typically, it is best to avoid alcohol altogether in order to minimize intolerance symptoms. However, in some cases, certain alcohols might have greater effects than others." You might, for example, feel fine after drinking wine, but experience side effects after drinking beer.

If you think you might have alcohol intolerance, you can weigh the pros and cons — depending on the severity and cause of your symptoms — and simply have fewer drinks. "If someone is alcohol intolerant they don't necessarily need to avoid alcohol at all costs but just need to know their limits and drink slowly with food," board-certified gastroenterologist Dr. Daniel Motola M.D., PhD, tells Bustle. If you experience any of these symptoms after drinking, talk to your doctor about the best way to move forward. Here are a few signs you might be alcohol intolerant.


Feeling Unwell Right Away

While nobody feels great after having one too many drinks, somebody with an alcohol intolerance may feel sick right away. "The first sign of alcohol intolerance is usually the general feeling of malaise and discomfort or not feeling well from as little as one drink," Mansour says. This symptom alone can make drinking unappealing, and you may want to talk to your doctor if it keeps happening.


Nausea Or Vomiting After Few Drinks

Along with the feeling of malaise, you might experience digestive troubles, such as nausea. "You can have a multitude of symptoms: nausea, stomach or abdominal pain, [and] vomiting," Mansour says. Again, this is likely to happen to anyone if they drink too much, but is a feeling that will crop up pretty much instantly for someone who is intolerant.


Excessive Gas

According to Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., an allergist and chief medical officer of EHE Health, it's also common to experience "excessive intestinal gas, bloating, and abdominal pain." If you can't seem to hit up the bar without feeling super uncomfortable after even one drink, then alcohol intolerance may be to blame. Gas and bloating have a lot of other possible causes, though, so for a more certain diagnosis, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.



In the same vein, Dr. Elliott says people with alcohol intolerance may even experience diarrhea, which is never fun when you're out with friends, or stuck in a cab, and suddenly have the urge to go. As with the other symptoms, take note if this happens even after one drink.


Flushing Of The Face

One of the most common signs of alcohol intolerance is reddening of the face, which happens when "people are missing a key enzyme needed to break down alcohol," Dr. Elliott says. "This results in flushing of the face, and feeling the symptoms of alcohol intoxication with lower amounts of it."


Runny Nose

Do you get a runny nose after drinking? This could be due to the histamine response, which is common when you're allergic to something. "Most reactions are mediated by a histamine pathway and it behaves like any allergy," Dr. Luiza Petre, M.D., a cardiologist, tells Bustle. "A histamine release is the final byproduct on the battleground between our body and anything considered a threat." As a result, Dr. Petre says the release of histamines leads to swelling and redness of the nasal passages, and ultimately, a runny nose.



Mansour says that a migraine can result when your body releases histamines to deal with your alcohol intolerance. A migraine is different than a headache in that it involves different neurological pathways, per Penn Medicine, and may also make you feel nauseated, tired, or extra sensitive to light, sounds, or smells. Sounds a bit like a hangover, right? Sure, but a migraine due to alcohol intolerance will come on pretty quickly, and not the next morning.


Swelling Of The Hands

If you notice that your skin gets puffy too, alcohol may be to blame. Dr. Michael Green M.D., associate medical director of Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care, tells Bustle that hives are a classic sign of alcohol intolerance. These could be caused by the alcohol itself, or by an ingredient in your drinks that your body can't process, like gluten or sulfites.


Changes In Blood Pressure

It is important to know that alcohol intolerance can lead to a drop in blood pressure, which can bring on a feeling of faintness or dizziness. Dr. Joseph Volpicelli M.D., head of Volpicelli Addiction Center, tells Bustle that this is normally a pretty severe reaction, and shouldn't happen if you just have a mild intolerance.

To make sure you're staying safe, talk with a doctor to find out the best way to avoid these symptoms. "It is important to discuss these symptoms with a primary care provider and make an informed decision about the impacts of drinking," Shilati says. That way, you can have alcohol — if you want to — without feeling sick.


John Mansour, PharmD, RPh, CEO and co-founder of pre-drinking supplement B4

Sheila Shilati, PsyD, COO of rehab facility Seasons

Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., an allergist and chief medical officer of EHE Health

Dr. Luiza Petre, M.D., a cardiologist

Dr. Daniel Motola M.D., PhD, gastroenterologist

Dr. Joseph Volpicelli M.D.

Studies cited:

Bryant, A. J., & Newman, J. H. (2013). Alcohol intolerance associated with Hodgkin lymphoma. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne, 185(8), E353.

Wüthrich B. (2018). Allergic and intolerance reactions to wine. Allergologie select, 2(1), 80–88.

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