Alcohol and asthma: What’s the connection?

By Rachel Nall

Asthma is a condition that causes a person’s airways to become narrower, which affects breathing. For some people, this effect is temporary. When asthma occurs long-term, the airways can become inflamed and tightened. Asthma most commonly starts in childhood. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, an estimated 25 million people only in the United States have asthma.

Asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe, where a person requires emergency medical treatment to start breathing again. Although there are medications a person can take to manage asthma, a cure for the condition doesn’t exist. That’s why it’s important that people who have asthma take steps to prevent an asthma attack.

  • What causes asthma?
  • Symptoms of asthma
  • How does alcohol use affect asthma?
  • Treatments for asthma
  • What causes asthma?

A number of triggers can potentially cause an asthma attack. When a person is exposed to their particular trigger, the airways react by getting tighter. This causes asthma symptoms. A person can have several asthma triggers or just one.

Common asthma triggers include:

  • Lady having breathing difficulties and holding neck
  • Numerous triggers can cause an asthma attack such as smoke and dust mites.
  • Air irritants, such as air pollution, chemicals, and smoke
  • Common allergens, such as dust mites, cockroaches, molds, and pet danders
  • Exercise
  • Medications, including over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin and acetaminophen
  • Stress
  • Weather extremes, such as very hot or cold days

Doctors will often recommend a person keep an “asthma journal.” In these journals, people track their symptoms and what they were doing, eating, or drinking when an asthma attack occurred.

Symptoms of asthma

Asthma can cause acute symptoms, known as an asthma attack, or can cause less-obvious symptoms, such as a chronic cough at night. Examples of asthma symptoms include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing that occurs at a certain time during the day
  • Trouble catching a person’s breath
  • Wheezing

Asthma is a chronic condition, so it doesn’t go away even with treatment. Children often grow out of asthma and may not have any symptoms or need for medications as adults.

How does alcohol use affect asthma?

Alcohol has often been suggested as a contributor to and trigger for asthma. However, researchers haven’t conducted a significant amount of research as to the specifics of alcohol and asthma. One of the biggest research studies on the topic was published in 2000 in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The study from Australia asked more than 350 adults to fill out a questionnaire on their allergy triggers related to alcohol. The study’s findings included:

  • Red wine being poured into a glass
  • Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits.
  • 33 percent said that alcohol had triggered an asthma attack on at least two occasions
  • Wine was associated with being particularly allergenic
  • The onset of most alcohol-related asthma symptoms occurred within 1 hour of drinking alcohol
  • Most asthma symptoms reported were mild to moderate in severity

The researchers highlighted two components of some alcoholic beverages that appeared to be particularly allergenic and could contribute to an asthma attack: sulfites and histamines. Sulfites are a preservative that is commonly used in making wine and beer, but also may be added to other food types. People with asthma are often especially sensitive to the effects of sulfites. Another potentially allergy-causing substance in alcohol is called histamine. This compound is created when alcohol is fermented. Histamine is present in all alcohol types, including liquor, beer, and wine. Histamines are common causes of allergic reactions – this is why some types of allergy medications are called antihistamines.

Complications of asthma and alcohol intake

Alcohol could also indirectly contribute to asthma symptoms. Stress is a known contributor to asthma symptoms. Some people may feel sad or stressed and turn to alcohol as a means of escape. However, excess alcohol can worsen feelings of stress and also take a toll on a person’s body and health.

Asthma can have several complications on a person’s health. It can affect their ability to sleep, engage in exercise, and attend work or school. If alcohol makes these symptoms worse, the complications and effects of asthma can be worsened.

Are any alcoholic drinks safer than others for people with asthma?

If a person with asthma does have alcohol-related triggers, it’s important to be aware of what alcoholic drink types trigger the symptoms. According to the study mentioned above, wine is seemingly the most allergenic alcoholic beverage. Organic wines that do not have preservatives added to them may be lower in sulfites. Beer also contains sulfites that could potentially trigger asthma symptoms.

To limit the effects of alcohol on asthma, a person should keep their alcoholic beverage intake to a certain type of alcohol for the night. If it causes symptoms, a person should avoid it. If it does not, it may be a less asthma-inducing drink type. The volume of alcohol may also contribute to worsening asthma symptoms. While a glass of wine may not cause symptoms, drinking three glasses could have enough sulfites or histamines to trigger a reaction.

It’s also possible that a person cannot drink any alcohol type without having an asthmatic reaction. In this case, a person must weigh the importance of their health and severity of symptoms with their desire to drink alcohol.

Treatments for asthma

  • Asthma treatments involve avoiding asthma triggers and taking medicines that can reduce asthma symptoms. People can also have their own unique personal triggers for asthma, including alcohol.
  • A doctor may also prescribe medications to help people control and treat their asthma. These medications are usually divided into short- and long-acting options.
  • Short-acting medicines are used to provide immediate relief during an acute asthma attack. These medications open up the airways, making it easier for a person to breathe. Examples include short-acting beta-2 agonists, such as albuterol.
  • Long-acting medications are intended to reduce inflammation that can lead to an asthma attack. Examples of these medications include:
  • Young man uses asthma pump

An asthma inhaler delivers medicine directly to the lungs

  • Antileukotrienes
  • Cromolyn sodium
  • Immunomodulators
  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Long-acting inhaled beta-2 agonists
  • Methylxanthines
  • Oral corticosteroids

Finding the right combination of medications to treat asthma can require some trial and error. As a general rule, if a person must use short-acting medications more than twice a week, their asthma could be better controlled.

When to see a doctor

  • Some asthma symptoms need emergency attention. These include the following:
  • Coughing up dark brown or bloody mucus
  • Having trouble breathing that doesn’t improve with short-acting medication
  • Onset of a new fever
  • If a person is on medications to control asthma and experiences the following, they should contact their doctor:
  • Using quick-relief asthma medications for more than 2 days a week
  • Noticing that mucus is getting thicker or more difficult to clear
  • People with asthma should see their doctor any time they experience unwanted symptoms or have difficulty managing their symptoms.

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