What it’s like to be allergic to alcohol

People who are allergic to alcohol or have an alcohol intolerance can become physically ill from drinking.  (Photo: Getty Images)

People who are allergic to alcohol or have an alcohol intolerance can become physically ill from drinking. (Photo: Getty Images)

I have an allergy to alcohol. It doesn’t matter if the alcohol in question is spirits, liquor, wine, beer or cider. Consuming even a single drink prompts my body to throw up within an hour of imbibing it.

It took a while to discover the allergy, as the pattern didn’t establish itself clearly until well into my adulthood. I tried drinking in my college years, but I often had to retreat and be sick in private. At 6’3” and 250 pounds, I knew one drink should hardly make a dent, so alcohol wasn’t an obvious culture.

I attended Marquette University in Milwaukee — the Beer Capital of the World. I turned 21 during my senior year when the downtown school boasted the most on-campus bars per student of any college in America. Alcohol was an essential ingredient to that higher education experience. But during my college years, instead of being at the bar, I worked as a bouncer and bodyguard for bosses who were pleased that I would always be the sober guy on the floor.

Before I realized it would make me ill, I tried to enjoy a little booze. While completing my studies at the University of Oxford as a foreign student, I tried to sneak a pint of cider in the Exeter College pub. I explored everywhere from the whiskey distilleries of southern Scotland to the Champagne region of France. I learned as much as I could about every drink I couldn’t enjoy.

Years later, after trial and error in my 30s, I finally narrowed down the problem to alcohol in its many forms.

John Scott Lewinski shares what it's like to be allergic to alcohol.  (Photo courtesy of John Scott Lewinski)

John Scott Lewinski shares what it’s like to be allergic to alcohol. (Photo courtesy of John Scott Lewinski)

Dr. Gary Steven, founder of the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center, SC in Milwaukee and medical director with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Registry, says an alcohol allergy like mine is rare, explaining that it’s difficult to decipher from the more common alcohol intolerance since the symptoms are similar.

“A non-allergic reaction is more common, as alcohol can irritate a sensitive digestive system,” Steven says, adding that, in some cases, “a person might already have an allergic reaction in progress from another source that alcohol can inflame.”

According to the Cleveland Clinic, both an alcohol allergy and alcohol intolerance can cause nausea, as well as vomiting. People with alcohol allergies can also experience stomach cramps, rashes, itchiness and swelling, while the telltale signs of alcohol intolerance include flushing of the face, neck and chest.

I’m now 52, ​​and friends still ask me what it was like going through that senior year of college without beer or other booze. How did it feel to go to all those basketball games and parties teetotaling all the way?

I don’t know. I never went. The nights would find me in the library or back in the dorm studying. Most folks assumed I was just an anti-social overachiever. But an inability to join in the party played a bigger role than academic ambition.

It’s hard not to take a grim look at the list of life experiences and rites of passages I couldn’t enjoy because I wasn’t able to join the party. From pub crawls to wine tastings to tailgate parties, I’ve had to sit them out on my own. How many romantic encounters or long-lasting relationships spark when a couple loosens up those “meet cute” nerves with a bottle of wine? How many second dates never happened because the woman felt strange drinking with a man who couldn’t join her?

People’s reactions to the news that I cannot drink are predictable. Most think I’m kidding. Once it’s clear I’m serious, I see that almost imperceptible squint as they wonder if I’m really a recovering alcoholic who invented an allergy alibi.

Friends and family tell me it’s possible for me to attend any booze-themed event and just keep my glass filled with water, juice or soda. That’s true – for a while. But any gathering centering on alcohol tends to slowly degrade, as attendees drift into varying degrees of drunkenness. As the only sober guy in a pack of drinkers, I’m on an island. They’re on the mainland, laughing, arguing and forgetting about tomorrow. I’m offshore looking at irrational, incoherent goofs who were my friends an hour ago. I invariably end up leaving these events early.

But rather than whine about this strange medical condition, I focus on the benefits. Obviously, I will never be an alcoholic. I’ll dodge any of the long-term effects of alcohol consumption — from impaired mental capacity to liver disease.

After never overindulging and avoiding impaired or altered states, I developed an appreciation for being mentally clear and focused. Full consciousness is something I value.

In the end, it’s just best to accept the situation — and maybe we can make a toast to finding the upside of a raw deal.

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