Does Drinking Alcohol Cause Nasal Congestion?

Woman sneezing behind a window, using a tissue.
Alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream, and it's a toxic substance. Guido Mieth / Getty Images

The consumption of alcohol has been linked to nasal congestion in some people. This is due to the way some people digest the alcohol.

Everything we consume is broken down by enzymes in our bodies. While some foods are broken down in the intestines, others are digested in the stomach. Alcohol does not need to pass through the digestive tract in order to be digested; rather, it is absorbed directly into the blood stream. Alcohol is a toxic substance. The body produces a special enzyme in the liver, known as Aldehyde Dehydrogenase (ALDH) enzymes, to break down and oxidize the alcohol in a process that turns the alcoholic substances into acetic acid (vinegar), from which some energy can be obtained.


Some people have malfunctioning ALDH genes. As a result, their bodies produce inactive ALDH enzymes that are unable to properly break down the alcohol into acetic vinegar. This incomplete processing of the alcohol can cause the body to react by producing symptoms that reflect an allergy to the alcohol. People with this gene deficiency suffer two-fold from allergic symptoms to alcohol. First, the body produces histamines in response to the presence of the alcohol that the body is unable to digest. Second, because ALDH is also the enzyme that is supposed to metabolise histamine, people with alcohol allergies suffer from excessive amounts of undigested histamine in their systems, leading to allergy-like symptoms such as nasal congestion and mild flushing immediately upon consuming even minute amounts of alcohol.

Although allergies to alcohol are rare, one of the most common symptoms of an allergy to alcohol is nasal congestion, also known as allergic rhinitis; caused by the inflammatory effect of the histamine produced by the body in response to the presence of alcohol. The histamine causes the blood cells in the nasal region to dilate, resulting in mucus, nasal congestion, sneezing, and a runny nose. However, the severity of these symptoms may vary from person to person.


Alcohol Nasal Congestion FAQ

Does alcohol cause nasal congestion?
Yes, the consumption of alcohol has been linked to nasal congestion in some people due to the way they digest it.
Does alcohol make sinusitis worse?
Consuming alcohol when you have a sinus infection can make it worse. This is, at least in part, because your body needs more water and becomes dehydrated more easily when it's producing higher than normal amounts of mucus. Since alcohol dehydrates you, it follows that consuming it can worsen the symptoms of sinusitis.
How do I know if I have alcohol intolerance?
Allergies to alcohol are rare, however the most common symptom of one is nasal congestion, or allergic rhinitis. It's caused by an inflammatory effect of the histamine produced by the body in response to the presence of alcohol in the system.
Can alcohol cause sneezing?
For the rare few who are allergic to alcohol, it can cause mucus production, nasal congestion, sneezing, and a runny nose.
Does alcohol help clear sinuses?
For many, a shot of whiskey is a great decongestant if you have a cold (and you're of legal drinking age, of course). Alcohol dilates the blood vessels, making it easier for the mucus membranes to deal with the infection. A hot toddy consisting of whiskey, lemon juice, honey and boiling water is a popular cold remedy.