Get access

Ethanol as a cause of hypersensitivity reactions to alcoholic beverages


Margitta Worm, Charité Humboldt University, Department Dermatology and Allergy, Schumannstr. 20/21, D-10117 Berlin, Germany. E-mail:


Background Adverse reactions after ingestion of alcoholic beverages are common. Metabolic differences in individuals and also the histamine content in alcoholic beverages have been implicated. By contrast pure ethanol has rarely been reported as a cause of hypersensitivity reactions and its mechanism has not been clarified yet.

Objective To determine whether ethanol itself accounts for alcohol hypersensitivity in patients with anaphylactic reactions after alcohol intake. In search of possible pathomechanisms all patients were analysed by skin prick testing and sulfidoleukotriene production of peripheral leucocytes using ethanol and its metabolites.

Methods Double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenges with a cumulated amount of 30 mL ethanol were performed in 12 adult patients with a positive history of adverse reactions after consumption of different alcoholic beverages. Skin prick tests and measurement of sulfidoleukotriene production were performed using different concentrations of ethanol and acetaldehyde from 50 to 1000 mm.

Results Oral challenges with pure ethanol were positive in six out of eleven patients. All challenge-positive patients, but also four out of five challenge-negative patients, showed an increased sulfidoleukotriene production in-vitro compared with healthy controls. Skin prick tests using alcoholic beverages, ethanol, acetaldehyde and acetic acid were negative in all patients (12/12).

Conclusion Our study shows that ethanol itself is a common causative factor in hypersensitivity reactions to alcoholic beverages. These reactions occur dose-dependent and a non-IgE-mediated pathomechanism is likely, because skin prick tests were negative in all cases. Increased sulfidoleukotriene production was determined in some patients, but is no reliable predictor. Therefore oral provocation tests remain indispensable in making the diagnosis of ethanol hypersensitivity.

Get access to the full text of this article