Wine Allergy


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wine-allergyFor some people, a glass of red wine is an invitation to a roaring headache. After a few episodes of headache and queasiness, those who suffer them may banish wine from their tables for life. The symptoms are part of a syndrome known as Red Wine Headache, or RWH.

Red Wine Headache

“The red wine headache is a real if poorly understood phenomenon,” says an article in the June issue of the Harvard Health Letter. That is a masterpiece of understatement. There are many theories about what causes the syndrome, but few facts. Dr. Fred Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, said no one really knows what leads a patient to develop this type of headache.

It may be caused by “compounds found in grape skins. They are either naturally occurring or produced through fermentation,” Dr. Freitag said. He would postulate no further. “It’s not as if there are hundreds of thousands of dollars for funding” studies to determine the cause, Dr. Freitag said. There is actually a stigma to studying the subject. “I’ve entertained the idea of looking for grants to study this and I’ve been told, ‘Don’t go there, it’s bad P.R.,’” Dr. Freitag said. Bad publicity comes to those who would study drinking? Carry Nation is with us yet.

A sulfite allergy used to take the blame for RWH. About 20 years ago the Food and Drug Administration determined that about 1 percent of the population is allergic to sulfites and required that wines containing certain levels of the compound be labeled “contains sulfites.” Many people have assumed, incorrectly, that the labeling is designed to warn people who get a red wine headache. [In fact, sulfite sensitivity is a true allergy. Sufferers experience an allergic reaction, but not a headache. RWH is something else.]

Scientists have pointed out, however, that many sweet white wines contain more sulfites than red wines — yet do not cause headaches in those who suffer from RWH Additionally, dried fruits usually contain sulfites but you never hear of dried fruit headaches. Sulfites can cause an allergic reaction [breathing problems], Dr. Freitag said, but they give headaches only to asthmatics.

Other experts think tannins are at the root of the headaches. Tannins are the flavonoids in wine that set one’s mouth to puckering. The Harvard Health Letter notes several well-controlled experiments showing that tannins cause the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. High levels of serotonin can cause headaches and that may happen in people who also suffer from migraine headaches. But that does not explain why people who do not get migraines get RWH. Dr. Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU, added that no one complains about tea, soy, or chocolate headaches — though all contain tannins.

A third school of thought blames histamines. Histamines are 20 – 200% higher in red wine than in white, and those who are allergic to them are deficient in a certain enzyme. Some experts believe that the combination of alcohol and that deficiency can cause the headaches. But a study of 16 people with an intolerance to wine, reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (Feb 2001) found no difference in reactions to low- and high-histamine wines.

A fourth suggestion is that prostaglandins — substances that contribute to pain and swelling — may cause RWH. [More on this next month!] Yet for most people who suffer from RWH, the hypotheses are irrelevant. They want to know what to do about the problem. Some Web sites suggest prevention: for histamine sensitivity, pop a non-sedating antihistamine like Claritin or take an aspirin to stop production of prostaglandins.

In 1981 Herbert Kaufman, M.D., reported that the prophylactic ingestion of aspirin prevented the red wine headache syndrome, RWH, (Lancet 1981; 1: 1263). He also noted that once RWH begins, aspirin has little or no effect in altering the headache.

Related Posts: Sulphur Allergy and Beer Allergies

By Marian Burros of Beekmans Wines & Liquors of Glen Rock, NJ. Their web site is: www.beekmanwine.com

Allergies to Wine

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Comments
  • John Cordigan:

    Thank you for this information. I have been searching for a site like this that has so much allergy information on it.

    I was searching for wine allergy and found this page. I will read some other allergy posts.

    Thanks again!!

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  • Patti:

    I’m allergic to red wine but I don’t get headaches, I get the symptoms of a severe head cold and no medication with help. My symptoms occur the day after I drink it. My nose running constantly like a faucet, and sneezing, this is an all day symptom. The only way for me to deal with it is lay down the entire day and when standing stuff part of a tissue up my nose to catch it when it runs.

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