Why Does One Beer Make Me Sick (And Should You Worry?)

Beer can cause an adverse reaction in some people. We’re not talking about the type where they believe they can sing or are talking in an indoor voice. If you’ve ever had a beer and felt a little “off” after one drink (or even as small as a sip), you might have wondered if beer can make you sick.

The ingredients used in the fermentation of beer can cause a reaction as minor as simple intolerance to something more serious like an allergic reaction. A recurring negative reaction to a particular beer may indicate an allergy to a specific ingredient. If the intolerance has come on quickly, it could be a sign of a developing liver problem.

Read on to find out how to differentiate between an allergic reaction and food intolerance and any steps you can take to mitigate your body’s response.

Why do you feel sick after only one beer?

If you are like a lot of people, you probably have a favorite beer. It’s never given you any trouble – at least as long as you don’t go overboard!

One day a buddy hands you a pint from a local microbrewery that he says you have to try out. After a single pint, you might notice that you have a bloated feeling or a runny nose. Your buddy might point out that your face got red faster than usual, or you might even feel a headache coming on.

The new beer likely had an ingredient that you might not have consumed in the past. Like any food that is ingested, the reaction can be categorized as intolerance or an allergy.

What’s the difference?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of the two can be very similar. An allergy causes your immune system to respond, but intolerance can be caused by an underlying or existing condition or a lack of appropriate enzyme to digest the ingredient. 

It is easier to prevent a reaction if you have an intolerance than with an allergy. Strategies can include limiting your overall intake to taking supplements that include the missing enzyme.

What are the symptoms of being allergic to beer?

Just like any food allergy, the response can vary from barely noticeable to life-threatening. An allergic response involves the immune system trying to rid your body of a substance it considers a threat.

Here are some of the more common allergic reactions to beer:

  • tingling sensation on the tongue or in mouth
  • rash or hives
  • abdominal cramps
  • sneezing
  • nausea

But if you see any of the following, seek immediate medical attention by calling 911:

  • wheezing
  • tightness of chest
  • difficulty breathing
  • loss of consciousness

The worst response to an allergy is anaphylaxis, where the airways constrict, followed by a drop in blood pressure. If left untreated, death can result. 

If you suspect you are mildly allergic to a specific beer, you can do a version of the elimination diet and stop drinking it. Later, you can sample that beer (and only that beer) and keep track of your results.

With a strong allergic reaction to a beer, you might want to talk to your doctor about testing. There are definitive tests that will determine what triggers your allergy. You will need to read labels and stay away from those ingredients carefully.

Are there histamines in beer?

Histamines are chemicals produced by your body (and found in many foods) that can cause your body to think it is fighting off a potential allergic reaction.

Beer, like most alcohol, contains a lot of histamines. When your immune system reacts to an allergy, the first thing it does is flood your body with histamines. 

If you are the type that suffers from seasonal allergies (e.g., pollen), you might find that you’re sneezing more than usual after a beer or two. There’s no need for concern if this is happening simultaneously as your regular allergies and not at any other time.

Can you suddenly develop alcohol intolerance?

For some people, they might develop a response no matter what beer they drink – even that favorite brew they’ve been drinking for years! In that case, what’s likely to happen is a sudden onset of alcohol intolerance.

For your body to break down alcohol, it has to make an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), which is made by the liver. If your body can’t make as much because of liver damage, sickness, or age, you can develop a reaction to any alcohol.

There is also a genetic component to alcohol intolerance, especially amongst Asians. According to the abstract of this PubMed article, a component of the ALDH enzyme is present but typically inactive.

What alcohol is the best for intolerance?

There is also the possibility that instead of the alcohol causing the reaction, it could be an ingredient.

Since this can vary from person to person, you can try the trick with the elimination diet to see if there’s something you can drink.

Sample different types of alcohol (one type at a time) and track your results. You might find one that doesn’t give you a reaction.

What are the first signs of liver damage from alcohol?

If you suspect that you might have liver damage from drinking alcohol, there are several early signs you can watch out for:

  • swelling/pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
  • unexplained weight loss
  • lack of appetite
  • lack of energy
  • nausea and vomiting

You can improve your liver health by limiting your drinking to CDC guidelines of 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and regular visits to the doctor are also recommended.

How to stop feeling sick after drinking beer

With a mild reaction, the first thing you should do is stop drinking that beer. You can try switching to something else (if available) and see if the symptoms subside.

If that doesn’t work, you can try an over-the-counter antihistamine (e.g., Benadryl) to reduce or stop symptoms like itching, hives, or flushing.

Keep in mind the above suggestion is for those specific symptoms and only after you are done drinking. There are many warnings against taking an antihistamine while continuing to drink beer or alcohol.