Food & Drink

What It's Like to Be Deathly Allergic to Alcohol

Published On 02/06/2016 Published On 02/06/2016
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

You stumble home after one innocuous night at the local bar. You're tired, and you feel a little woozy. Your face is flushed... is it usually this red? The back of your tongue swells. You chalk it all up as standard side effects of booze, until the minor flush turns to a burning, swollen rash, and your throat feels like it's being Force-choked by an invisible Darth Vader. 

This is what happens when your buzz suddenly turns into a death sentence. And it happened to documentary filmmaker Anat Baron.

"I'll put it to you this way, I didn't have to wait more than three seconds in the waiting room at the hospital -- that's usually a bad sign."

Baron's body struck up an unprompted, incredibly severe allergy to alcohol while she was in graduate school, and now a mere swig of Zima is enough to land her 6ft under before you can say, "Hey, have you seen my EpiPen?" Baron, along with "Linda," a career chef who shares Baron's rare allergy (despite relying on alcohol in many of her dishes -- hence the fake name), took time out of their definitely sober lives to detail the trials and tribulations of being deathly allergic to the cause of and solution to all of man's problems.

And keep in mind, it could happen to YOU!


Finding out you are allergic to alcohol is brutal... and potentially deadly

The night Baron learned she was allergic to alcohol, she had actually just returned from winning an informal drinking competition at a nearby bar. Before this, she had never had any kind of reaction.

"I know in this context it sounds crazy, but I was never much of a drinker, even though I could drink a lot. It was more of a party trick for me."

Baron started feeling her windpipe closing, so she called 911 and was rushed to the hospital, where her allergy was diagnosed. If she hadn't called the ambulance in time, she would have died. "Its just like having a severe allergy to peanuts or shellfish... the swelling, and breathing issues, it's deadly."

Linda discovered her allergy the good old-fashioned way, in her parents' basement as a 16-year-old.

"I had never drank before, and I had some beer," she told me, "I got really, really sick -- had a horrible reaction... I couldn't breathe and was going into convulsions... and had to go to the hospital. My mom knew what was going on as soon as she saw me. She has the same allergy I do." 

How do people develop this allergy? Are they born with it?

"The truth is, very little is known about how allergies work, exactly," Baron said. "Around this same time in my life, when I was in school, I developed horrible allergies to shellfish and a few other things, too. The doctors can't tell you why you are allergic to things... it's still a mystery to them." It's so under-researched, there are no official statistics on the percentage of people with this problem. She confided that she had never even met someone else who shared her allergy. 

Linda said the doctors who saw her as a teenager didn't even need to perform any tests to confirm her allergy.

"This kind of stuff is hereditary, and my mom has it too. It's believed that the allergy is due to a missing enzyme (aldehyde dehydrogenase) that's present in most people's bodies, that breaks down alcohol."

Some people have the propensity to turn bright red when they get a little tipsy, while others still are simply allergic to ingredients present in different types of booze, rather than the booze itself. Laura Caldwell, for example, the mother of our Sex and Dating editor Nicole, told us, "I'm allergic to the juniper berries. They make me throw up." 

But Linda and Baron aren't allergic to hops, or barley, or juniper -- they are allergic to the alcohol itself. So any drink (or food!) with a trace amount of alcohol -- even an O'Doul's -- will bring on deadly symptoms.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Bars aren't that fun when you can only drink water

"I would never, ever go to a bar out of choice," Linda said. "I mean, I'll end up at bars for birthday parties or things like that... but I'm kind of an introvert anyway. I think a lot of people like me would use alcohol as a way to loosen up and lose their inhibitions, but I can't do that."

"New Year's Eve is like... my least favorite night of the year," Baron said. "And there's always this time of the night, at every bar or party -- I call it the 'magic hour,' where people start really feeling their drinks and it's hard to be the only person at the party who isn't feeling that way. That's when I usually leave."

It's kind of depressing when all your friends are taking shots and touting big boys, but Linda and Baron both acknowledge a certain intoxicating feeling that occurs when you are around a bunch of people getting blotto, even while staying as sober as a Mormon doing a dry-January think piece.

"I smoke weed fairly often... but most of the time [in social settings] I'm totally sober. What's funny though is I've noticed I get a 'second-hand buzz' when around intoxicated people sometimes and then act silly too. It's like when everyone else's inhibitions are down, mine go down with them," said Linda.

"I'm not the kind of person with a lot of inhibitions in the first place, I think most people, when they talk to me at parties, just assume I've been drinking like everyone else. It's just my personality," said Baron. "I think people have to drink to keep up with me."

But, the occasional "accident" will definitely happen

Linda and Baron's allergies are so severe, foods with trace amounts of alcohol (like disgusting fruitcakes) are enough to trigger their allergies. Listerine, Benadryl, liquor-infused chocolates -- allergic reactions don't discern. If it has alcohol in it, it can make these women sick.

Both confided that they have to be especially cognizant while eating out at restaurants, as so many dishes use alcohol. Sometimes, they slip up, though.

"A while ago I had a job interview, and my friend bought me this little cake -- kind of wishing me good luck. I scarfed it down a couple bites without even really thinking.. .right before my interview. As you can probably guess, yep, it had alcohol in it. I started sweating bullets and had the feeling I was like, going to die. I had to get out of there. Needless to say, the interview didn't go so well," Linda told me.

The worst part is when people don't believe you

If someone told you they were deathly allergic to mangos, you wouldn't laugh it off and spike their sushi with mango juice -- sounds a little malicious, right? For Linda and Baron, they are constantly batting away scoffing critics who think they are "making it up."

"That really is the worst part, that people don't believe you -- they think you are making it up and make some corny joke like 'oh yeah, me too -- it causes me to make bad decisions.' Most people have never met someone allergic to alcohol before, and they just can't comprehend it," Baron said.

Linda said that all too often people will doubt her claims, and even make fun of her, or assume she is a prude. She even said that occasionally people will try to peer pressure her into taking a drink, or even just give her an alcoholic drink, anyway.

In some cases, it can even negatively affect your career

A do-or-die aversion to alcohol isn't just a hinderance at company happy hours or 3pm group-slugs from your deskmate Larry's hip flask (hey... it's a bonding exercise).

Linda's recipes, for example, frequently call for the inclusion of alcohol, and she admits in these instances that she needs to borrow some taste buds to make sure her dishes are on point. 

And Baron -- like the little kid who's allergic to dogs, but can't resist playing with them and dealing with the runny nose -- dove headfirst into the world of alcohol, in her 2009 feature documentary on the craft-brewing community, Beer Wars. That's right. The woman who put a magnifying glass on brewers around the country can't even indulge in one sip of Pliny the Elder.

"I saw some brewmasters literally shed a few tears while I was touring these big breweries," she said. "Overall, I think not being able to drink -- and in turn become personally involved with -- these beers lent me an objective point of view that probably helped the film.

"But on the other hand, I did sometimes feel like an outsider in that world. In some ways it was hard to get close with this community that really coalesces around the experience of their beer."

But there may be some silver lining, after all

In spite of all these shortcomings, both Baron and Linda recognize there are some benefits to being forcefully sober. 

"I have never publicly made an ass of myself... I've never gone home with anyone after a night of drinking, then regret it in the morning," said Linda. "Overall, it's not something I obsess about or even think about. It's just something I have to deal with. Sometimes I do wish I could have a drink when I'm out with my friends, but I can't -- and really, that's OK."

"Of course I'd rather have the ability to have a drink, here or there -- but it has its positives. I feel like my lifestyle is a little healthier. I'm clear-headed in all situations... and I guess I'm keeping some extra calories out of my diet," Baron admitted.

"Plus, in combination with my allergy to shellfish... I'm a pretty cheap date."

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. You should probably check your blood sugar after reading this. Follow him: @wilfulton.



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